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International relations

Space junk from 2007 China satellite attack still poses risk

US officials call for 'rules-based order' to reduce odds of collision in orbit

An artist's rendition of the Landsat satellite: The U.S. military depends heavily on satellites for positioning, navigation and timing. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

NEW YORK -- Space debris from a Chinese experiment 14 years ago in which Beijing destroyed one of its own satellites continues to orbit Earth, a senior U.S. military commander has told Congress.

"In 2007, we saw the Chinese conduct a very irresponsible test. We continue to have about 3,000 pieces of debris on orbit that we continue to track," Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the commander of Space Operations Command at the U.S. Space Force said in testimony to subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "That's about 10% of the total amount of objects that we track on orbit."

On Jan. 11, 2007, Beijing destroyed an inactive weather satellite with a ballistic missile, successfully demonstrating its ability to operate anti-satellite weapons. The satellite was at an elevation of about 850 km, roughly the altitude where the U.S. and Japan operate their imagery intelligence satellites, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

While Beijing vowed not to hold any further similar tests, the message had been sent: China now had the technical prowess to attack what is thought to be one of the U.S. military's biggest weaknesses. In 2007, the U.S. already relied heavily on satellites for the operations of high-precision weaponry. With artificial intelligence and machine learning increasingly prevalent, the dependence has only deepened since.

The weaponization of space by China and Russia was a dominant theme of questioning from lawmakers in Wednesday's hearing. "We continue to see the Chinese building satellites like the Shijian-17, which is a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm that could be used to grapple U.S. or allied satellites," Whiting said. "We know they have multiple ground laser systems which could blind or damage our satellite systems."

Visitors stand near a giant screen displaying the images of the Tianhe space station at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing on April 24.    © Reuters

On Russia, Whiting said that a satellite launched in 2019, the Kosmos 2542, was thought to have conducted a test in which it shadowed a U.S. satellite, hinting that it could be used as a space-based anti-satellite weapon.

Kosmos 2542 "was synchronized in its orbit with a United States-government satellite, and when the United States government moved our satellite, the Russian Kosmos 2542 resynchronized its orbit," he said. "Russia's a sophisticated space actor so they must have known what they were doing. Obviously, we do not support weapons test near our satellites."

Especially concerning to the U.S. is the vulnerability of the Global Positioning System, the satellite-based radio navigation system owned by the government and run by the Space Force. It provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on Earth and the U.S. military's entire operation -- aircraft carriers, fifth-generation fighters, tanks and missiles -- relies on GPS for positioning, navigation and timing. U.S. superiority in the military domain could immediately be eliminated if digital communication is disrupted.

In a speech in Hawaii on April 30, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in future warfare, the military must ensure "that capabilities like our Global Positioning System can continue even if adversaries attack it with missiles, cyber tools, or space-based weapons."

At the Wednesday hearing, Bruce Turner, a senior official at the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said the space threats the U.S. currently faces include "ground to space, space to space, ground to ground, space to ground," as well as "radio frequency interference, directed energy weapons, cyber threats to command and control, attacks on terrestrial space infrastructure, robotics, etc."

"We're at the stage of the process where we are identifying the kinds of threats that are out there," but eventually there needs to be a principle of how nations behave in space, Turner said. Currently, "there are no formal agreements covering a number of these issues," he said.

Space junk could harm commercial and military satellites in orbit. The last anti-satellite test conducted by the U.S., back in 1985, left some 300 pieces of debris that took 17 years to burn up in the atmosphere, according to the CFR.

The title of the hearing was "Creating a Framework for Rules-Based Order in Space," and both the government witnesses and the lawmakers present called for new rules of conduct in space. But discussions so far with Russian and Chinese officials on space coordination have not led to concrete results, Turner said.

"We have met with Russians about some of these issues," he said of the alleged shadowing of American satellites. "Most of the discussions we have are less than satisfactory. Sometimes the Russians do not even want to acknowledge that sort of activities are indeed taking place," he said.

"We have done our best to bring experts, military and diplomatic, in some of these meetings to discuss these issues, but thus far, the Russians really have not engaged in a satisfactory way."

Jonathan Moore, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said the U.S. has been engaging with China on space issues. "Our primary goal is to ensure spaceflight safety and responsible behavior in outer space," Moore said.

"We've been working to try to encourage China to improve communications between our respective satellite operators to avoid potential collisions in orbit. As an example of this, we've been coordinating with China to ensure that their navigation satellite system Beidou does not cause radio frequency interference with our GPS satellites," he said.

"We... expect them to follow the norms and standards," Moore said, but "the results have certainly not been consistent or satisfactory."

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