China protests double standard on satellite strike

Personally, we aren’t too comforted by the fact that this thing was blown up in the sky instead of falling to earth—releasing all that toxic hydrazine into the atmosphere. But we are glad this Feb. 21 account from the UK Guardian closes with a quote from Michio Kaku, a principled voice for space demilitarization. Via the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space:

China today accused Washington of double standards after the US navy fired a missile to destroy a failed satellite 150 miles above the Pacific.

Beijing—which was criticised by the US and others when it shot down one of its own satellites last year—turned the tables on the Bush administration after the satellite was shot down today.

“The United States, the world’s top space power, has often accused other countries of vigorously developing military space technology,” the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist party’s newspaper, said.

“But faced with the Chinese-Russian proposal to restrict space armaments, it runs in fear from what it claimed to love.”

Earlier this month, Russia and China proposed a treaty to ban weapons in space and the use or threat of force against satellites and other spacecraft.

Washington rejected the proposal as unworkable, saying it favoured confidence-building efforts, US reports said.

At a regular news conference, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said: “The Chinese side is continuing to closely follow the US action, which may influence the security of outer space and may harm other countries.”

US defence officials said they were confident that a missile, fired from the USS Lake Erie, had hit its target, destroying a tank of toxic fuel on the satellite, which failed soon after being launched in 2006.

Video footage released by the Pentagon showed a fireball when the missile struck the satellite, indicating that the fuel tank – containing hydrazine – had exploded.

“All indications are that it was a successful intercept,” General James Cartwright said. The official added that it could take another 24-48 hours to know for certain whether the tank had been destroyed.

The missile was fired at 3.26am GMT, despite earlier reports that the operation would be postponed because of bad weather in the Pacific.

The modified tactical standard missile 3 (SM-3) hit the satellite at an altitude of 150 miles (247km) while it was travelling at approximately 17,000mph.

Two other ships, the USS Decatur and the USS Russell, were close by, and part of the task force, run by the Army Space and Missile Defence Command in Colorado Springs. If the initial shot had missed the satellite, they could have provided back up missiles.

Pentagon officials insisted the operation was necessary to prevent possible deaths following the satellite’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The craft, a spy satellite, was carrying around 450kg of toxic hydrazine fuel.

The successful launch proved that the US navy’s Aegis anti-missile radar system could be quickly adapted to shoot down satellites.

When China shot down a defunct weather satellite last January, there were protests from western governments.

In the aftermath of the exercise, Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said: “The US 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.

“We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.”

Downing Street also expressed its concern at the time, condemning what it said was a “lack of consultation”.

The Chinese action was also criticised because of the millions of pieces of orbiting space junk, created by the satellite’s destruction, which could damage other satellites or the space shuttle while in orbit.

However, space junk should not be a problem from today’s space shot though. Because of the satellite’s relatively low altitude, debris began re-entering the atmosphere almost straight away, the US defence department said.

Most debris should re-enter the atmosphere within 48 hours, and the remaining pieces will leave orbit within 40 days.

Scientists and groups opposed to the militarisation of space backed China’s criticism of the US exercise.

Professor Michio Kaku, the distinguished physicist and author of Physics of the Impossible, said: “With a certain amount of justification, the Chinese claim there is a double standard … this latest move can be seen as provocative, since the US has refused to renegotiate and strengthen the 1987 outer space treaty.

“What is needed is a comprehensive ban on the militarisation of outer space … arming the heavens will only put us one step closer to a disastrous war in space that no one can win.”

See our last post on the new space race.