msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/18/2007 7:40:33 PM ET 2007-01-19T00:40:33

The United States, Australia and Canada have voiced concerns to China over the first known satellite-killing test in space in more than 20 years, the White House said Thursday.

“The U.S. believes China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. “We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.”

Using a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile, the test knocked out an aging Chinese weather satellite about 537 miles (860 kilometers) above the earth on Jan. 11 through “kinetic impact,” or by slamming into it, Johndroe said.

Canada and Australia had joined in voicing concern, he said. Britain, South Korea and Japan were expected to follow suit, an administration official told Reuters.

The last U.S. anti-satellite test took place on Sept. 13, 1985. Washington then halted such Cold War-era testing, concerned that debris could harm civilian and military satellite operations on which the West increasingly relies for everything from pinpoint navigation to Internet access to automated teller machines.

According to David Wright of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, the satellite pulverized by China could have broken into nearly 40,000 fragments from 1 to 10 centimeters (a half-inch to 4 inches) in size, roughly half of which would stay in orbit for more than a decade.

On the day of the test, a U.S. defense official said the United States was unable to communicate with an experimental spy satellite launched last year by the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office. But there was no immediate indication that this was a result of the Chinese test.

No such publicized destruction of a satellite in space has occurred in at least 15 years, said Marco Caceres, a space expert at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va.

No big surprise
Aviation Week & Space Technology, the first to report the test, cited space sources as saying a Chinese Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite, launched in 1999, was destroyed by an antisatellite system launched from or near China’s Xichang Space Center in Sichuan Province.

The latest report follow claims in September, reported by Defense News, that China was aiming high-powered, ground-based lasers at U.S. spy satellites — apparently to test whether sensors on the satellites could be blinded.

China's anti-satellite efforts come as no surprise to the Bush administration, which revised U.S. national space policy in October with an eye on boosting protection of civilian and military satellites. At the time, that policy revision touched off a round of criticism at home and abroad, with the critics claiming that Washington was asserting a right to bar any rival from access to space.

In a major speech about the policy last month, Robert Joseph, the State Department’s point man for arms control and international security, said other nations and possibly terrorist groups were “acquiring capabilities to counter, attack and defeat U.S. space systems.”

“No nation, no nonstate actor, should be under the illusion that the United States will tolerate a denial of our right to the use of space for peaceful purposes,” Joseph said on Dec. 13.

U.S. has its own program
The United States has been researching satellite-killers of its own, experimenting with lasers on the ground that could disable, disrupt and destroy spacecraft.

Slideshow: Planetary pleasures Marco Caceres, a space expert at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia, told Reuters that China’s test could bolster a host of military space programs, almost all of which are over budget and behind schedule.

“They are going to use this for as much as they can,” he said, referring to Pentagon officials. Major corporate beneficiaries could be Lockheed Martin Corp., the Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., which build U.S. communications, surveillance and early-warning satellites, Caceres added.

Boeing, for example, is working on an airborne laser system that could shoot down missiles during their boost phase, potentially heading off an anti-satellite attack. The program has encountered delays as well as cost increases, and is now due for its first real-world test in late 2008.

This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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