COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Reuters) - A larger than previously reported debris field from China’s antisatellite test in January has boosted risks to spacecraft in a wide range of orbits, the U.S. Air Force Space Command said on Tuesday.
“The Chinese ASAT test has certainly increased the collision risk to all of the roughly 700 active spacecraft with (orbital low ends) below approximately 4,000 kms,” the command said in reply to queries from Reuters.
Such “low-Earth” orbits are home to satellites used for communications, scientific and environmental monitoring and weather predicting, as well as the International Space Station.
The biggest U.S. satellite manufacturers are Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and Northrup Grumman Corp.
The test “made clear that space is not a sanctuary,” Ronald Sega, undersecretary of the Air Force, told reporters at a space-industry forum in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
On January 11, China shattered one of its aging weather satellites with a ground-based missile — the first such test since the United States and the Soviet Union halted 20 years ago, concerned about satellite-threatening debris.
The Air Force is planning to spend more than $400 million over the next five years to promote “operationally responsive space,” including small satellites that could be launched quickly to replace any downed by a foe.
Raytheon Co., a Waltham, Massachusetts, defense contractor, said at the industry symposium it would step up its efforts to meet the emerging “launch on demand” market.
“Raytheon sees this area of the space business growing quickly as asymmetric threats make the need for up-to-date, detailed information critical to the safety and success of our warfighters,” said Brian Arnold, a retired Air Force general who runs many of the company’s advanced space programs.
Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, another big space contractor, was to hold a press conference Wednesday to announce a “rapid response space surveillance initiative.”
The Space Command is tracking more than 1,600 pieces of the Chinese target, the Feng Yun 1C weather satellite, and most are expected to remain in orbit for “decades,” Masao Doi, a command spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Last month, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, gave Congress a less precise figure. He said then the test had added more than 1,000 pieces to the man-made debris tracked by the Air Force since Moscow launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957.
On January 10, 2007, the catalog of man-made debris consisted of 14,406 orbiting objects, meaning the Chinese test added more than 10 percent of the 50-year total in an instant, according to the update from the Peterson Air Force-based space command, outside Colorado Springs.
With about 10 countries and consortia able to launch payloads into space and about 40 countries owning assets in orbit, “space debris affects us all,” Doi said.
“The need to protect our space capabilities is as important now as ever and robust space situational awareness is critical to performing this function,” he said. Such awareness involves the ability to know what other countries are putting in space.
Almost all of the bits being tracked are smaller than one square meter, Doi said. In addition, “it is expected that there are many more pieces of debris associated with breakup of the FY-1C that are too small to be detected by the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network.”
Tracking the potentially destructive shards is performed by the 1st Space Control Squadron located at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, near the Peterson base.
Before the FY-1C event, the largest breakup was of a U.S. Pegasus rocket body in June 1996 for which 712 individual debris pieces were tracked and cataloged, the command said.