Newswise — One year ago today, China intentionally destroyed its own aging weather spacecraft making use of an anti-satellite (ASAT) device, creating in the process the most prolific amount of orbital debris in five decades of worldwide space activities.
That lingering cloud of dangerous space junk from the Chinese ASAT is a wake-up call, one that all nations engaged in utilizing space should heed, observed Ray Williamson, Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation.
"The harmful environmental effects of the Chinese ASAT test point out the need for the space faring nations of the world to come together in developing effective rules for the governance of space activities," Williamson said.
The consequence of the January 11, 2007 ASAT destruction by China of its defunct, eight year old Fengyun-1C meteorological satellite, Williamson added, signals a requirement for action on several fronts.
"We need an international cooperative approach to space situational awareness, space traffic management and an international agreement banning further ASAT tests," Williamson noted.
Put in harm's way by the debris cloud of Earth-circling satellite fragments are billions of dollars of operational satellites in the service of numerous nations, as well as the International Space Station and its crew. In one reported instance, Williamson observed, NASA had to execute a collision-avoidance maneuver with its Terra Earth-monitoring spacecraft to evade a piece of debris from the Chinese ASAT test.
Reducing the threat
NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office at the space agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas has stated that the cloud of clutter from the ASAT test "represents the single worst contamination of low Earth orbit during the past 50 years."
A recent NASA analysis of ASAT-produced space junk yielded by China's purposeful destruction of its nearly one-ton meteorological satellite " chunks of litter one centimeter and greater " is estimated at roughly 150,000 bits or more of orbiting flotsam produced immediately after the test.
Furthermore, only a small percentage of the spacecraft wreckage has reentered the Earth's atmosphere. The majority of the debris was thrown into long-duration orbits, with lifetimes measured in decades - even centuries.
"Despite the problems the Chinese test has created for satellites in orbit, perhaps something good can come out of the test in the form of an increased awareness of the threat to space systems from orbital debris and the need to reduce that threat," Williamson said.
"In fact, in my view, the Chinese test generally increases the incentive to craft and adopt internationally acceptable 'rules of the road' for space, with the goals of not only reducing the threat of damage from orbital debris, but also assisting all countries in establishing and maintaining relatively safe access to space," Williamson said.
Explained Cynda Collins Arsenault, President and co-founder of the Secure World Foundation: "Although China has been rather silent in commenting on the test, and there are multiple speculations as to the purpose, China in conjunction with Russia continues to push for a treaty preventing the weaponization of space in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament."
The vision of the Secure World Foundation (SWF) is to promote secure, sustainable and enforceable agreements that preserve and protect the global space commons. The SWF calls for international steps toward establishing effective governance of space, curbing the spread of orbital debris while encouraging space traffic management, and cultivating the opportunity to utilize space for the benefit of all humankind.