WASHINGTON - Trash from China's satellite-killing missile test has spread widely in space, creating a debris cloud that could jeopardise spy satellites and commercial imagery satellites in low orbits around Earth, US officials said today.
Even the manned International Space Station is vulnerable to being hit by some of the thousands of pieces of trash created when China slammed a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile into an aging Chinese weather satellite about 865 km above Earth on Jan. 11, the officials said.
"The test created a lot of debris. It definitely raises the possibility that something is going to be hit, including the space station," Peter Hays, a senior adviser to the Pentagon's National Security Space Office, told Reuters.
Theresa Hitchens, who heads the non-profit Centre for Defence Information, told a conference held by the George C. Marshall Institute that US tracking data showed debris from the test had been seen from 425 km to 3000 km above the Earth.
"A huge number of satellites have been put in harm's way," she said, estimating that more than 120 satellites were orbiting in the area. It could take decades for debris from the Chinese weather satellite to fall out of orbit.
GeoEye , the world's largest commercial satellite imagery company, operates its satellites around 680 km above Earth, but said it was not concerned because its satellites were in a different orbit. GeoEye spokesman Mark Brender said it can manoeuvre satellites in their orbits and "close their lens caps" during cosmic dust storms.
Col. Patrick Rayermann, chief of the US Army's Space and Missile Defence Division, told Reuters the Chinese test had reenergised discussions about the need for a treaty or certain rules for actions taken by space-faring countries. However, he added that verifying compliance could prove difficult.
"What anybody does in space has ramifications for all users in space," Rayermann said.
An increasing number of countries are operating satellites, including Nigeria, India and Iran. Hitchens said that expansion raised the "spectre of chaos" and underscored the need for a system of regulating their actions.
No current international treaties or agreements prohibit anti-satellite tests, although the last one was conducted by the United States in September 1985, officials said.
However, a 1967 global Outer Space Treaty does require notification of manoeuvres in space, and holds countries liable for their actions, which means commercial operators could sue China for damages if their satellite was hit by debris.
The UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is due to sign a new voluntary agreement to mitigate the creation of space debris at a meeting in Vienna next month.
Philip Meek, associate general counsel for the US Air Force and an expert on space law, said Washington was reluctant to sign any rules or agreements because it had an "asymmetric advantage" in space and had more to lose than other nations.
Meek and Hays both said satellites were vulnerable to attack and anti-satellite technologies were more suited to offensive attacks than defending existing satellites.
Instead, Hays said Washington needed to revamp its approach and create a space architecture with more redundant satellites, including commercial ones, that made the overall system less vulnerable to attacks on individual spacecraft.
He also called for increased spending on space systems, but conceded big gains were unlikely given the war in Iraq.