Shooting down satellites with much China-U.S. consternation

You really have to hand it to the United States. After putting up a remarkable ruckus in November when a Chinese rocket annihilated an old satellite and spread undetermined amounts of debris orbiting Earth, the United States government has decided to do t

You really have to hand it to the United States. After putting up a remarkable ruckus in November when a Chinese rocket annihilated an old satellite and spread undetermined amounts of debris orbiting Earth, the United States government has decided to do the same to a malfunctioning spy satellite that could rain sizable and toxic debris somewhere on the planet if not destroyed. And China's government urges caution.

The situation is hard to grasp. According to the International Herald Tribune, China and Russia have recently called for a ban on all space weapons, which the United States has opposed. Meanwhile the United States castigated China for shooting down its satellite and thereby demonstrating that Chinese rockets could disable, say, GPS or communications satellites that are essential to U.S. military operations.

Then, when the United States has a broken spy satellite that contains toxic fuel and likely some sensitive technology that it wants to blow out of the sky, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson urges the United States to act responsibly on the issue of safety in space.

I'm pretty sure authorities in both the United States and China would be better off if they read their previous statements before making new ones. It would sure be less confusing for the rest of us.

A Chinese expert in arms control at the prestigious Tsinghua University is not a fan of the plan. "In my opinion, this decision is imprudent and ill advised," Li Bin, the expert, told the IHT. "If this satellite is shot down, the toxic fuel will still be there. Therefore, the pollution still exists." But Li did say the shoot-down would be a good way to keep spy technology from landing in someone else's back yard.

The United States showed its near-space marksmanship in 1985 during the Cold War, and the Soviets did the same, so it's no new show of force for U.S. President George W. Bush to shoot this one down. After reading several articles, the most realistic reasons I've seen for shooting it down are an authentic concern about a toxic fuel tank landing on Earth or a fear of compromising sensitive spy technology.

Either way, even the best-calculated low-orbit explosions are going to hurl debris in unpredictable directions. I hope all this doesn't end in a hole punched in someone's heat shield.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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