It was, in all likelihood, just a coincidence, but the timing of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Feb. 11 call for stricter rules governing in-orbit activities now seems uncanny: It came just three days before the U.S. government announced it would attempt to destroy a dead spy satellite that was heading toward an uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry.
Mr. Sarkozy said such rules could discourage events like China’s deliberate destruction of its own satellite last January, which littered a busy stretch of Earth orbit with debris. The similarities between that test and the U.S. satellite shootdown are inescapable: both involved missile shots and both underscored the fact that the space environment is fragile and that such activities affect all spacefaring countries.
To be sure, there were very important differences. China
hit its aging FengYun 1C weather satellite at an altitude of 850 kilometers – high enough so that much of the debris is likely to remain aloft for years, perhaps decades. The U.S. satellite, by contrast, was intercepted at about 247 kilometers, and U.S. officials estimate that all of the resulting debris will re-enter the atmosphere harmlessly in a matter of weeks. That remains to be seen, of course, but there can be little doubt that minimizing if not eliminating the debris hazard was a top priority in the U.S. government’s mission planning.
Secondly, the United States notified the world well in advance of its plans, something the Chinese did not do.
Last but not least, U.S. officials cited a public-safety rationale for downing the classified experimental spacecraft, which malfunctioned shortly after its launch in December 2006. The satellite, they said, had a full load of toxic hydrazine fuel in a tank that was expected to survive the re-entry breached but intact. Had the spacecraft been left to re-enter on its own, officials said, the hydrazine could have contaminated an area about the size of two football fields, posing a serious threat in the unlikely event that the tank hit a populated area.
Naturally, not everybody bought the government’s story and suggested ulterior motives ranging from one-upping the Chinese to protecting U.S. technological secrets to testing the emerging U.S. missile defense system’s anti-satellite potential. Arms control advocates were especially critical.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is at least partly to blame for this, having engendered that
community’s mistrust with its secrecy, unilateralism and general disdain for arms control treaties. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has been experimenting with highly maneuverable spacecraft that conceivably could have anti-satellite applications.
It is fair to ask whether the Bush administration would have been so adamant about the threat posed by its wayward satellite had there been no available means to shoot it down. Similarly, it is safe to assume the Pentagon would covet data from what was, in effect, the closest thing yet to a real-world test of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. And yes, the operation did demonstrate the potential to adapt the U.S. missile defense system to an anti-satellite role; if it can be done with the Aegis system via software modifications, it probably can be done with the longer-range Ground Based Midcourse Defense system.
Some politicians in Russia and China, which have been pushing a treaty banning space weaponry, seized upon the shootdown as an opportunity to take some rhetorical shots at U.S. opposition to that idea. The Bush administration has rejected such a treaty as unverifiable, and rightfully so.
But the White House can be faulted for its failure thus far to aggressively pursue safe operating guidelines – also known as rules of the road – among spacefaring nations. These rules would require, among other things, satellite operators to notify others of plans to move a spacecraft from one location to another. They would not have the force of law, but that doesn’t mean they would be ignored: voluntary guidelines adopted in 1997 by the Inter-agency Space Debris Coordinating Committee, for example, seem to have helped improve satellite disposal practices.
The administration could go a long way toward reassuring the international community in the wake of its satellite shootdown by getting on board with Mr. Sarkozy and engaging seriously in a dialogue aimed at crafting universally accepted operating guidelines for space activity. This could be a time-consuming process, but it is never too soon – or too late for this administration – to start laying the groundwork.
In the meantime, the White House and Congress should direct the U.S. Air Force to expand its Commercial and Foreign Entities (CFE) program, which makes U.S. satellite tracking data available to non-government users. Commercial satellite operators and others rely on CFE data to avoid on-orbit collisions, but this remains a pilot program with limited funding and just basic services. A proposed expansion of the program to include more advanced support for satellite operators could be carried out quickly and would be well worth the modest investment required.