The recent maneuver that controllers of NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite had to execute to avoid a piece of rubble from China’s Jan. 11 anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapon test serves as a stark reminder of just how irresponsible Beijing’s action was.
Evasive action was taken after orbital models indicated there was a 7 percent chance of a collision, which could well have proved fatal to the $1 billion satellite, especially since the stray object was about 40 centimeters across. Considerably smaller pieces of orbiting junk can do a great deal of damage due to the velocities involved, and China’s test – in which it destroyed the spent Fengyun 1-C weather satellite with a ground-launched missile – is believed to have created at least 35,000
pieces of debris larger than
1 centimeter across and tens of thousands of smaller pieces. In addition, an estimated 2,831 payloads could potentially cross paths with this debris over its lifetime.
It is not publicly known
whether operators of other satellites, such as classified ones, have had to steer their craft out of the test-debris’ way. But Terra’s forced maneuver is by itself dramatic and irrefutable proof that the danger posed by destructive A-Sat testing is real, not theoretical.
For its part, China has yet to acknowledge the menace it has created. This begs the question of whether Beijing will step up and take responsibility should someone’s satellite be damaged or destroyed as a result of its actions.