The dispute started on January 11, 2007 when China shot down one of its own weather satellites. The strike, which resulted in thousands of pieces of debris orbiting the earth, raised fears that the Chinese had the power to cause chaos by destroying US military and civilian satellites, and GPS systems. Ever since, the US and China have been involved in an ongoing dispute over the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. The US has not taken part in an anti-satellite (ASAT) launch since 1985.
Apparently the US did not like what the Chinese were doing in space. At talks in January 2008 the US publicly criticized China’s “anti-satellite tests.” But behind closed doors, the US was more concerned with China’s actions than they had revealed.
In secret WikiLeaks documents just published, Condoleeza Rice told the Chinese, “A Chinese attack on a satellite using a weapon launched by a ballistic missile threatens to destroy space systems that the United States and other nations use for commerce and national security. Destroying satellites endangers people….any purposeful interference with US space systems will be interpreted by the United States as an infringement of its rights and considered an escalation in a crisis or conflict….The United States reserves the right, consistent with the UN Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space systems with a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military.”
In February 2008, the US struck back. The US navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruiser, USS Lake Erie, scored a direct hit on an American spy satellite, known as USA 193. The missile used, a highly sophisticated SM-3, took about three minutes to climb 150 miles above the Earth, where it flew past the satellite before turning back and destroying the target at an impact speed of 22,000mph.
In the public the US claimed it was to prevent the faulty satellite’s fuel cell from returning to earth and not part of a a satellite test or to demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. A Pentagon spokesperson said, “The purpose was to prevent the satellite’s hydrazine fuel from causing potential harm to life on the ground….To conduct this engagement, we had to make modifications to three sea-based missile defense interceptors, three ships, and the system’s command and control software…..We have not made these modifications to any other missile defense system, nor do we plan to. Our missile defense systems are not intended or designed to engage satellites.”
China has fought back by continuing to carry out tests in space, as recently as late 2010. Beijing publicly justified its actions by accusing the Americans of developing an “offensive” laser GPS system weapon that would have the capability of destroying missiles before they left enemy territory.
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