Video: Will China step up the militarization of space?

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/19/2007 8:18:56 PM ET 2007-01-20T01:18:56

The uproar over claims of a Chinese anti-satellite weapon test rose on Friday, but China's foreign ministry said it had no information about the test — and Russia's defense minister said he doubted it even took place as reported.

Reports of the Jan. 11 test, in which a Chinese missile firing took down one of its own aging weather satellites, sharpened a long-running controversy over space weapons. If the test took place as reported, the incident would stand as the first time a ground-based missile destroyed an orbiting satellite, and would raise a significant new threat for a U.S. military that is becoming increasingly dependent on satellite surveillance communications.

On Friday, Britain and Japan joined the United States, Canada and Australia in voicing concern. The U.S. State Department said Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph had summoned the Chinese ambassador to Washington Tuesday to seek information about the test.

“Is this one of these things where they have done it for whatever reasons and we are not going to see it happen again? Is this the beginning of a much longer program? Is this ... part of a particular military effort of some kind or is it part of just some other scientific program? There’s a lot of questions that are out there,” a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity Friday.

Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said China had not yet responded to Washington's inquiries. "We do want cooperation on a civil space strategy, so until we hear back from them or have more information, I don't have any more to add," she said.

At a Chinese New Year reception in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters Friday that he was unaware of the missile test, but reiterated his government's policy against weapons in space. “As a matter of principle, China advocates the peaceful use of space and opposes the weaponization of space, and also opposes any form of arms race,” he said.

Doubts in Moscow
In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov doubted that the Chinese test took place as reported and told journalists that "the current rumors are greatly exaggerated."

"I have heard reports on this score, which are quite abstract," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Ivanov as saying. "I doubt very much the reported anti-satellite target of the missile. I am afraid this is not so, but brushing aside my fears, it is very good that it is not so."

Some other Russian commentators, however, accepted the reports. Russian Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Fateyev, criticized the Chinese test as "hooliganism," but added that "it shows that Beijing has a strong capability," according to Itar-Tass.

The RIA Novosti news agency quoted retired Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the Russian defense ministry's international military cooperation department, as saying that the missile used by the Chinese was modeled on the Soviet IS-1 missile designed to destroy satellites, developed in the 1970s.

However, NBC News space analyst James Oberg said that was a doubtful claim. "The IS vehicle was an orbit-to-orbit 'killer satellite' that attacked with a shrapnel blast only after approaching the target," he explained. "The Chinese approach was a direct ascent that destroyed by the kinetic energy of the vehicle itself."

Other speculation has focused on China's KT-1 solid-fuel missile, which is said to have orbital as well as suborbital capability. Several earlier attempts to launch the KT-1 failed, according to observers of the Chinese space program. Whether those earlier failures also involved attempted satellite attacks is not known.

Reports of this week's test first came to light in the publication Aviation Week & Space Technology, which cited U.S. intelligence analysis of orbital tracking. The tracking data indicated that the Chinese weather satellite disintegrated suddenly on Jan. 11 — and although the cause could not be confirmed, the fact that Washington expressed concern led to the conclusion that a satellite-killing missile was employed.

Dozens of pieces of debris tracked
U.S. tracking systems have provided additional information about the trajectories of the spacecraft during the test, and of the orbital debris that resulted from the test, Oberg said.

"More thorough analysis no longer suggests that the target satellite might have maneuvered before the attack in order to line up with the interceptor," he said in an e-mail. "All indications now are that the missile was launched toward the north and closed in from ahead and slightly to the side of the target's path."

The impact point would have been in range of radars at the Chinese main space center at Jiuquan, as well as of Russian missile defense radars in Irkutsk and other Siberian sites.

Oberg said the North American Aerospace Defense Command has issued the post-impact orbits of several dozen fragments, and they testify to the high energy of the impact. All of the fragments have one end of their orbits near 530 miles (850 kilometers) — where the impact occurred. The other ends of their orbits range from as high as 2,200 miles to as low as 100 miles. Additional fragments were likely produced with even lower orbits, but these would have burned up in the atmosphere almost immediately.

International debate
The test adds a new twist to a years-long debate over space weaponization.

Over the years, Russia and China have sided with each other to seek an international treaty banning weapons in space. The United States has opposed such a treaty, and in October the Bush administration issued a new national space policy advocating "freedom of action" in space.

The alleged test is said to have destroyed the satellite by hitting it with a kill vehicle launched aboard a ballistic missile — a type of attack that would pose a new threat to U.S. spy satellites and military communication satellites.

The United States has been researching satellite-killers of its own, experimenting with lasers on the ground that could disable, disrupt and destroy spacecraft. China's activities over the past week could be seen as pressuring Washington to reconsider its own military space plans.

U.S. allies expressed their own concerns about China's actions on Friday:

  • Japan: "We must use space peacefully," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. "We are asking the Chinese government about the test." Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso criticized Beijing for failing to give advance notice. He also said debris from the test could scatter in the atmosphere. "We told China that we doubt if we could call this a peaceful use," Aso said.
  • Britain: A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said diplomats had complained to their counterparts in Beijing about the lack of consultation. They also relayed their concern that debris from the test would strike other satellites orbiting the Earth, said Blair's official spokesman. Blair's spokesman said Britain did not believe China's test contravened international law. "However, we believe that this development of technology and the manner in which this test was conducted is inconsistent with the spirit of China's statement to the U.N. and other bodies on the military use of space," the spokesman said.
  • Australia: Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said his government opposed the test and had called upon Beijing's ambassador for an explanation. "Our concern about this is that to have a capacity to shoot down satellites in outer space is not consistent with ... the traditional Chinese position of opposition to the militarization of outer space," he told reporters. "So we've asked the Chinese for an explanation as to what this may mean," Downer said, adding that so far Chinese officials, including the ambassador in Canberra, said they were not aware of the test.

The Associated Press, Reuters and MSNBC.com contributed to this report.

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