Some Thoughts About Shooting Down US 193
The U.S. government is to be commended for notifying the world in advance about its intentions to shoot down a falling satellite with a ballistic missile. This announcement demonstrates an openness about a sensitive subject that is appropriate to a democratic society and has been missing in some instances in the past. I look forward to additional details about this event from government officials.
However, I fear that using a ballistic missile in this manner after the United States roundly chastised the Chinese government for its anti-satellite (A-Sat) test just over a year ago sends completely the wrong message to the world community. Few observers will appreciate the difference between the United States using a missile to hit a U.S. secret satellite orbiting at about 247 kilometers and the Chinese hitting their non-operational weather satellite at 850 kilometers. Even though the debris from the U.S. anti-satellite action will quickly “wash out” of the atmosphere in small bits, as opposed to the many decades it will take for the debris from the Chinese test to do the same, this distinction will go unappreciated by most observers.
The U.S. action looks very much like an anti-satellite test and represents an escalation of tensions over the use of weapons against orbiting objects. In conducting this operation, U.S. Air Force officials will learn quite a bit about using missiles to destroy low-Earth orbit satellites and can therefore be seen as a significant test of technology. It also gives validity to what some observers have long speculated – that the U.S. missile defense program is just a few steps away from a de facto anti-satellite
system, using the same sensors, missiles
and launch platforms. These modified A-Sat interceptors are presumably indistinguishable from standard missile defense interceptors, and thus potential American adversaries must assume that all such equipped Aegis cruisers are also A-Sat platforms. This represents a drastic change in the American stance on operational A-Sat systems.
Further, the U.S. rationale for the event is suspect. U.S. officials claim it is to protect the populace from potential damage because the satellite carries a large amount of hydrazine propellant, a liquid that, if inhaled, can do serious damage to the lungs. However, the percentage of populated versus unpopulated area is extremely small, and the chances of damage to life or property is similarly small.
Larger satellites with hydrazine, albeit in smaller amounts, have fallen in an uncontrolled manner before from orbit with no damage to human life and minimal property damage. Even the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia over Texas in January 2003 resulted in no damage to human life or property. Just a few weeks before they announced
the interception, military and NASA officials were downplaying the risk of danger to Earth’s population from this satellite, even as there was a classified presidential order in early January to go ahead with the weeks of testing and modification to prepare for the interception.
An additional lesson to be taken from this event is on information and access to it. Before the announcement of the interception, almost all of the information on this object was being released to the world’s media by amateur satellite observers from around the world. Indeed, the question should be asked if it were not for their efforts, would the world even know about this falling satellite and its potentially harmful payload?
The United States has long maintained the belief that it can prevent potential adversaries from knowing about its space capabilities and activities by refusing to release any information. But today several countries including China, Japan, Germany, Norway and France operate tracking radars and telescopes outside America’s control. Further, an ever-growing number of backyard researchers beholden to no official government policy or data restriction agreements track and even image satellites with high success.
In my view,
the development of these other sources of information signals that
it is time for the United States to re-think its space situational awareness (SSA) data-sharing policy and indeed, its overall stance on outer space and the long-term preservation of this important environment. Instead of insisting on its special status with regard to international space activities and accepting no limits on its freedom of action in space, the United States might rather take a leadership role in ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities. It could, for example, lead the development of an international SSA effort. In time, such an effort also could take on the development of a code of conduct or a traffic management regime for outer space that would help organize all space activities, especially those in Earth orbits, on an international basis.
We all benefit every day from the benefits of space activities. These benefits are much too important for the space environment to be left solely to the individual actions of countries with little or no cooperative international oversight. Unless the world’s space powers begin to work cooperatively in addressing the threats to the space environment, we may well lose these benefits.
Ray A. Williamson
Executive Director, Secure World Foundation