Monday, December 1, 2008

The Weaponization of Space (7 of 9)

In early January 2007, China exploded one of their derelict weather satellites, the Fengyun- 1C, in orbit, using it to test their new anti-satellite weapons system. They sent a suicide-missile to smash into the forgotten satellite, creating an explosion and a massive cloud of debris. To current knowledge, it created approximately 2,600 pieces of trackable debris (>1.5 inches) and an estimated 150,000 fragments larger than .4 inches; a veritable destruction of space orbit, the worst breakup of recorded space use. (NASA, 2008). Before that incident, the major events that created space debris were due to old rocket bodies with unused fuel unpredictably exploding, months or years after they were abandoned in orbit. Before this event, the greatest event in terms of the amount of space debris created was in 1996, when a discarded American rocket engine exploded, creating 713 fragments. (Broad, 2007) While it is still a major problem that scientists should and are trying to alleviate, the threat of the weaponization of space is much more menacing to the future of space use.

he main problem is that most people see space battles with the “Star Wars effect” in mind, from the classic science fiction series released in the 1970s, in which the targeted object explodes into nothingness, the matter making it up dissipating, leaving empty space left behind. An unreal scenario. An explosion in space creates thousands of pieces of refuse blasting out in every direction, into every orbit, putting all of the other space vessels at risk for tens to hundreds of years in the future. Another problem of sending things into space is that they might stay up there for a long period of time depending on the orbit, with some orbits lasting forever, while some will renter very quickly. In low earth orbit, if an object’s orbit is at less than 124 miles (just under usable low earth altitude), the orbit will only last a few days until reentering the atmosphere, if it is between 124 and 373 miles, it will have an orbit of a few years until reentry, if 372 to 497 miles, a few decades, and if greater than 497 miles, than it will remain orbiting for centuries. (NASA, 2005) And while the fragments of the Fengyun-1C had every low earth altitude orbit, the majority was in the 466 to 621 mile range, which expects that most of the debris will remain in orbit for a very long time.
Afterwards, it was leaked that the Chinese scientists in charge of studying the effects of the anti-ballistic missile test on the Fengyun-1C predicted that the huge explosion would happen, with disastrous effects, but the persons in charge of the test didn’t seem to take this into account. But the only real repercussion for China due to the incident was to cancel a debris discussion with the UN that has been scheduled beforehand, out of embarrassment. But that is the problem with the current space laws; they are easily circumnavigated or forgotten if a particular county feels like it is reasonable, because most do not see debris as a real problem, and those that do are hindered by the laxness and lack of enforcement of the space laws.

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