Proliferation of Chinese Orbital Debris
The European Space Agency (ESA) has been cataloguing orbital debris contribution by country for decades. Although Russia and U.S. have to date done most to clutter the cosmos, Chinese orbital debris has risen precipitously since the early 2000s, On January 11, 2007, China single-handedly increased large* orbital debris (greater than 10 cm in diameter) by 10% when it conducted an anti-satellite test (A-SAT) that created more than 2,500 pieces of debris. In this test, China launched a kinetic kill interceptor/vehicle from western China that collided with its orbiting FengYun-1C satellite. Despite international condemnation of the test, Geoffrey Forden, an MIT researcher, thinks that it is highly unlikely that the Chinese will fully abandon future A-SAT testing. NASA concluded that it would take more than one hundred years for the fallout from the collision to reenter the atmosphere. In the meantime, stellar objects remain at risk.
It is worth noting that residue fragment from the test collided with a Russian Ball Lens In The Space (BLITS) nano-satellite on January 22, 2013, almost six years later. The 16 lbs. (7.5 kg) Russian satellite was destroyed. Even though Russia was eligible to seek reparations from the Chinese under the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, it has elected not to do so.
For its part China has acknowledged space debris. It has joined numerous international organizations that seek to mitigate or reduce orbital debris, such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). The current English version of the China National Space Agency’s webpage does have a tab for Space Debris. When clicked, however, it directs only to a 2007 announcement that the Chinese-hosted 25th meeting of the IADC had to be postponed until further notice. Interestingly, the Chinese version does not have a Space Debris tab or notice posted, but it does have a link to statistics on American orbital debris. Yet at its present trajectory, it would seem that China is on track to becoming the leading space polluter.
Could Orbital Debris Prompt More International Cooperation?
Despite Congressional restrictions on some bilateral space arrangements between the U.S. and China, there is ample opportunity for more constructive measures with the international community. A good starting point would be to incentivize countries with space programs to reduce debris through better mission planning or spacecraft construction. Both measures would contribute significantly to what the State Department calls enhanced space stability. A second, far more optimistic goal would be to ban ASAT weapons and testing. Happily, many of these proposals are underway.
Gravity 2: The Chinese Sequel?
With so much orbital debris, Gravity’s storyline is far from preposterous. If the international community cannot collaborate to reduce or mitigate orbital debris, there very well could be a non-fictional sequel to Gravity. Unfortunately, this time Chinese taikonauts could be in the leading roles.
Wilson VornDick is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, where he is assigned to the Pentagon. Previously, he worked at the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. This piece reflects the author’s opinions, not the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other government entity.
*Added for clarification. See NASA's orbital debris FAQ for further details.