The international body that coordinates efforts to mitigate space debris mainly steered clear of confrontation with the Chinese delegation regarding China’s anti-satellite missile test, which created what is believed to be the most serious debris event in the 50-year history of space exploration.
In its first meeting since China’s January test, which created debris clouds in a busy
region of low Earth orbit, the 11-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) could not avoid one tense exchange between the U.S. and Chinese delegations, however, according to officials present.
The IADC’s annual meeting was held July 3-6 in Toulouse, France. It had been scheduled for April in Beijing, but the Chinese hosts cancel
the session following the international uproar over their
test, which destroyed a retired Chinese weather satellite orbiting at about 860 kilometers in altitude.
NASA, based on data from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network,
said the intentional fragmentation of the Chinese Fengyun
-1C satellite created thousands of pieces of debris that will remain a threat to satellites in low Earth orbit for decades, perhaps for centuries.
The gravity of the Chinese strike lies mainly in the high altitude of the collision
, which threw debris above and below the impact point – some into an orbit with an apogee of 5,000 kilometers. The U.S. and Russian governments in the past have destroyed their own satellites in orbit, but at much lower altitudes, assuring that the resulting fragments enter the atmosphere in relatively short order.
IADC members include all the major spacefaring nations. Its recommendations are largely responsible for the June decision of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to recommend a debris-mitigation resolution to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in October.
The IADC meeting in Toulouse was anticipated not only because of the Chinese incident but also a series of debris-creating events in February. In the most serious of these, the upper stage of a Russian Proton-M rocket broke up a year after it failed and was stranded in a highly inclined orbit ranging from
Russian officials told the IADC that the failure of the Breeze-M upper stage, which left
the Arabsat 4A satellite in
a useless orbit, also nullified
the command that orders the stage to empty its fuel tanks. Such “passivation” techniques are recommended for spent satellites and rocket stages to prevent them from becoming unstable bombs in orbit.
The Russian delegation assured that it would work to add backup controls to the Breeze-M so that its tanks could be emptied even if the primary command fails.
All 11 agency members of IADC were present in Toulouse – about 100 people in total.
During the meeting’s plenary session, according to delegates interviewed after the event, the China National Space Administration presented a statement excusing itself for canceling the April meeting in Beijing and saying China remains willing to discuss debris-mitigation techniques within the IADC. The statement made no reference to the anti-satellite strike.
But a meeting limited to the heads of delegation featured a candid assessment of the debris impact of the Chinese incident by Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris.
Johnson did not respond to e-mails requesting comment on his presentation
. But other officials in attendance said he spelled out, in blunt language, the estimated size and duration of the debris field caused by the Chinese strike.
“He did not go beyond the facts, but did emphasize the need to prevent all intentional debris-creating events,” said one official who was not with the U.S. delegation.
For the Chinese delegation, led by Li Ming of the China Academy of Space Technology, Johnson’s comments required a response.
Li did not respond to e-mails requesting comment. Other delegates said the Chinese delegation protested that the IADC is not the place for discussions of member nations’ political strategy. The discussions, the Chinese said, should be limited to a technical debate
Officials said it was clear that China’s IADC delegation had little influence over China’s military. U.S. and European officials have said that, nearly six months after the event, it remains unclear whether China’s political hierarchy was fully aware of the test plans
“You have to remember that China has its own weather and observation satellites in the affected orbit,” said one IADC attendee.
Western military officials have said their priority is to assure that China does not export the mobile platform from which the missile was fired to destroy the satellite.