James Randerson & Mark Tran / The Guardian – 2008-02-22 23:30:06
LONDON (21 February 2008) — China today accused the US of double standards after the US navy fired a missile to destroy a failed satellite 150 miles above the Pacific.
Beijing, which was criticised by the US and others when it shot down one of its own satellites last year, turned the tables on the Bush administration after this morning’s space shot.
The United States, the world’s top space power, has often accused other countries of vigorously developing military space technology, but faced with the Chinese-Russian proposal to restrict space armaments, it runs in fear from what it claimed to love,” said the ruling Communist party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily.
Earlier this month, Russia and China proposed a treaty to ban weapons in space and the use or threat of force against satellites and other spacecraft. But Washington rejected the proposal as unworkable and said it favoured confidence-building efforts, US media reported.
At a regular news conference, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said: “The Chinese side is continuing to closely follow the US action which may influence the security of outer space and may harm other countries.”
US defence officials said a missile fired from the USS Lake Erie apparently achieved the objective of destroying a tank of toxic fuel on the satellite that had failed soon after its 2006 launch.
Officials were cautiously optimistic the missile would hit the satellite, the size of a school bus. But they were less certain of hitting the smaller fuel tank, containing toxic fuel that the Bush administration said posed a potential health hazard.
“Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours,” the Pentagon said.
The missile was fired at 3.26am GMT, despite earlier reports it would be postponed because of bad weather in the Pacific Ocean whipping up rough sea conditions.
The modified tactical standard missile 3 (SM-3) hit the satellite at an altitude of 150 miles (247km) while it was travelling at approximately 17,000 miles per hour.
Two other ships, the USS Decatur and the USS Russell, were close by and part of the task force, which was run by the Army Space and Missile Defence Command in Colorado Springs. If the initial shot had missed the satellite they could have provided back up missiles.
The Pentagon insisted the space shot was necessary to prevent possible deaths following the satellite’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The craft – a spy satellite that malfunctioned almost immediately after launch – was carrying around 450kg of toxic hydrazine fuel.
The successful launch proved that the US navy’s Aegis anti-missile radar system could be quickly adapted to shooting down satellites.
When China shot down a defunct weather satellite on January 11 last year there were howls of protest from western governments. In the aftermath of the exercise, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, “The US believes China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area. We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.”
Downing Street also expressed its concern at the time. “We don’t believe that this does contravene international law. What we are concerned about, however, is lack of consultation and we believe that this development of this technology and the manner in which this test was conducted is inconsistent with the spirit of China’s statements to the UN and other bodies on the military use of space.”
The Chinese action was also criticised because of the millions of pieces of orbiting space junk created by the satellite’s destruction. This cloud of shrapnel could damage other satellites or the space shuttle while in orbit.
Space junk should not be a problem from today’s space shot though. Because of the satellite’s relatively low altitude, debris began re-entering the atmosphere almost straight away according to the US defence department.
Most debris should re-enter the atmosphere within 48 hours and the remaining pieces will leave orbit within 40 days.
Scientists and groups opposed to the militarisation of space backed China’s criticism of the US exercise. The distinguished physicist and author of Physics of the Impossible, Professor Michio Kaku, said, “With a certain amount of justification, the Chinese claim there is a double standard … This latest move can be seen as provocative, since the US has refused to renegotiate and strengthen the 1987 Outer Space Treaty.”
“What is needed is a comprehensive ban on the militarisation of outer space, by nuclear and conventional weapons,” he added. “Arming the heavens will only put us one step closer to a disastrous war in space that no one can win.”
“The potential political cost of shooting down this satellite is high,” said Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.
“Whatever the motivation for it, demonstrating an anti-satellite weapon is counterproductive to US long-term interests, given that the United States has the most to gain from an international space weapons ban. Instead, it should be taking the lead in negotiating a treaty.”
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