U.S. Accuses China of Conducting Another ASAT Test
The State Department today accused China of conducting another antisatellite (ASAT) test on Wednesday. China said that it had conducted a missile intercept test. The distinction between the two operations can be difficult to draw and there continues to be dispute in western circles as to how many ASAT tests China has already conducted.
Everyone agrees that in 2007 China destroyed one of its own satellites with an ASAT weapon. The test was condemned internationally because of the vast debris cloud it created in low Earth orbit -- about 3,000 pieces (the exact number changes as some pieces reenter and new pieces are created by collisions within the debris cloud) -- that threatens all satellites operating in that realm.
There also is agreement that China conducted tests in 2010 and 2013, but whether they were missile intercept or ASAT tests is a matter of debate in western circles. While some western analysts consider them ASAT tests, the U.S. government has not officially characterized them that way.
Therefore, this is only the second time the United States government has directly accused China of conducting an ASAT test and it called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions ... that threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend."
The full statement from the State Department issued today (July 25, 2014 EDT) reads as follows:
"The United States has concluded that on July 23, the People’s Republic of China conducted a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites. A previous destructive test of this system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an on-going danger to the space systems of all nations, including China. We call on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend. The United States continuously looks to ensure its space systems are safe and resilient against emerging space threats."
In answer to an emailed query from SpacePolicyOnline.com, Grant Schneider of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control and Verification and Compliance, replied "We have high confidence in our assessment. We refer to you to Chinese authorities for further information on this anti-satellite test."
China's Xinhua news agency on Thursday said only that it had conducted a successful land-based missile intercept test on July 23 that "achieved its preset goal."
In an emailed exchange this afternoon, Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, noted that China's announcement called it a successful missile intercept test while the State Department referred to it as a "non-destructive test." Weeden observed that China did not mention a designated target for Wednesday's test, unlike the 2010 and 2013 tests where it said the target was launched on a ballistic missile. "There was no mention of that this time," he said, and "My guess is that this test didn't have a designated target."
The United States and the Soviet Union developed ASAT systems early in the Space Age. The fate of the Soviet system is unclear, but it has not been tested since 1982. The United States ended its dedicated ASAT programs by the 1990s. In 2008, however, the United States destroyed one of its own spy satellites (USA-193) using a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser because, it asserted, the satellite was out of control and carried hazardous fuel that posed significant risk to populated areas if it made an uncontrolled reentry. The operation demonstrated an inherent U.S. capability to conduct such operations even though there is no official ASAT program.
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