Space Force Still Dodging Chinese Satellite Debris

By Josh Luckenbaugh

iStock illustration

Anti-satellite attacks not only have consequences for the space vehicle itself, but can cause problems for other systems in orbit for years, and even decades, to come.

In January 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite test, destroying a non-operational weather satellite with a ballistic missile. The destruction created a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of space debris, according to a Secure World Foundation fact sheet.

The 2007 Chinese test “created problems and still is creating problems,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said during a Center for a New American Security event. In 2021, the International Space Station was forced to make an evasion maneuver to dodge debris created by the test.

Saltzman recalled a recent visit to the 19th Space Defense Squadron “that does conjunction assessment, which is anytime two satellites get too close together for flight safety, you have to notify the users.”

“The top collision avoidance maneuver that they were proposing was because of a piece of debris from the Fengyun satellite that was shot down in 2007,” he said. “So that’s 16 years ago, and we are still deconflicting debris from that event.”

In February, Space Systems Command launched its Space Access, Mobility and Logistics program. One of the program’s focus areas is orbital debris remediation, a command release stated. Instead of destroying old satellites, one option could be tugging assets to a graveyard orbit after they have used all their onboard fuel reserves.

A number of companies are investing in technologies such as small-scale robotic arms with little pincers to grab things to big blow-up nets to round up space debris, Col. Meredith Beg, who is leading the program, said in the release. “The venture capital world is very excited about these possibilities.”

Another area where the Space Force must improve is space domain awareness, Saltzman said.

“We are very good at telling you where something was. We’re not so good at telling you where it is right now,” he said. For example, if there’s a breakup of a rocket body and “that one object becomes four objects, now suddenly I have to track four objects and make sure it’s not going to hit anything.

“I get notice that there’s a breakup … and I say, ‘When did it occur?’ And they might say, ‘Seven days ago … that’s how long it took for us to trace back what we were collecting in terms of four pieces that we didn’t understand, to see that those four pieces actually came from this event that occurred,’” he said.

The Space Force needs to “compress that timeline,” he said. While it may not always take seven days to make those determinations, the service must “have the sensors, the data fusion, the decision support software that allows us to take all that information and avoid operational surprise,” he said.

Having the technology to monitor space and quickly identify if a country conducts an operation that creates debris can deter future anti-satellite tests, he said.

“If we can call out irresponsible behavior before it’s a problem, we think that has a de-escalating effect. We’ve seen great powers respond to attribution with international peer pressure that has a deterrent effect.”

Along with improved debris remediation and space domain awareness, the Space Force must consider how to conduct “responsible counter-space campaigning” should conflict break out, Saltzman said.

“We have to be able to deny the adversary their use of that space-enabled targeting layer, because it holds our joint force at risk. But I can’t shoot down all their satellites and create millions of pieces of debris that foul the environment for us to use,” he said. “So, we have to find responsible ways to perform counter-space where we can still deny, disrupt or degrade, but be responsible in terms of how we use the environment.

“If you shoot an airplane down, it falls out of the domain. You shoot a satellite down, it stays in the domain for hundreds of years,” he said. “And that’s why we have to be responsible with how we do it — almost like a new way of thinking about [the] law of armed conflict.” ND

Topics: International

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