US Missile Test–Sign of an Arms Race in Space?

The United States military has shot down a stray satellite via sea-launched missile. While the Pentagon insists that the episode was meant to prevent the falling satellite from becoming a potential hazard upon its descent to earth, military analysts are not persuaded. It will be difficult to disabuse those with a realist mindset that the exercise was not in response to China’s similar missile exercise in January 2007. Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger writes:

sm3_missle_0220.jpgThis week, the Pentagon tried something different. On Wednesday evening, it announced that it successfully launched a sea-based missile and shot down a crippled satellite gliding 150 miles overhead, in a $60 million effort to blast it out of the sky before it could tumble home and hurt someone. It’s been a neat little feat on the part of the military planners — but that doesn’t mean they’re telling the whole truth about why they bothered in the first place.

The clay pigeon in the military’s cross hairs was an unnamed, 5,000-lb. spy satellite that was launched in 2006 and never quite got its purchase in space, suffering a malfunction almost immediately upon its arrival in orbit. Comparatively low-orbiting craft like this one tumble back to Earth faster than high-orbiting ones, as the upper wisps of the planet’s atmosphere produce increasing amounts of drag, pulling the object lower and lower. This one was on a trajectory that would have caused it to begin its terminal plunge sometime in March, sending it on a fiery descent that should have entirely — or at least mostly — incinerated it.

So why make the effort at such a complicated bit of sharpshooting just to bag a target that was coming down anyway? The Pentagon says it’s all about safety. Five thousand pounds of out-of-control satellite can do an awful lot of damage if it drops on the wrong spot. What’s more, this particular satellite is carrying a 500-lb. tank of frozen hydrazine fuel — nasty stuff if you’re unlucky enough to inhale it. Striking the ground at reentry speed, the gas could immediately disperse over a patch of ground as big as two football fields…

The more believable explanation for the duck hunt is that it’s been an exercise in politics rather than safety. Washington was none too pleased in January of 2007 when China shot down one of its own weather satellites after it had outlived its usefulness, a bit of technological sword-rattling that proved it could target any other nation’s orbiting hardware with equal ease. Beijing too made vague claims of worrying about the public weal, but Washington saw the act more as the political statement it probably was, and concluded — correctly — that American spy satellites are not quite as safe as they once were. An American shootdown would be one way to return the gesture. The timing is particularly suspicious since Russia and China issued a joint condemnation of the militarization of space only days before the Pentagon went public with its plans. While Beijing’s sudden pacifism is hardly credible after it own exercise in cosmic skeet-shooting, neither is the Washington’s insistence that there is no linkage between the two events.

Another possibility is that the Pentagon was indeed nervous about something aboard the satellite, but not the tank of fuel. Spy satellites are, by definition, made of secret hardware, and nothing so pleases one military power as the chance to seize and pick over the technology of another. Should American camera and communications components fall into the wrong hands, whatever tactical advantage was gained in developing them would be lost.

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