Monday, January 22, 2007

A space arms race?

On January 11 2007 the Chinese government successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon. (Note that "ASAT" weapons are feasible as the target has a known orbit from which it can hardly deviate, and satellites are fragile things. Anti-ballistic missile weaponry is currently not physically feasible, despite both the Clinton and Bush administration's claims.)

The militarization of space is a cause for grave concern - for many reasons not the least of which being that "Star Wars"-like systems are most effective as offensive (and not defensive) weapons. They essentially encourage a first-strike mentality.

Meteor Blades argues that this action by the Chinese was partially a response to the bellicose US defense department's Space Policy that published last year. And it is hard to believe the current US administrations claims that their policy, and the Chinese governments actions, do not constitute evidence of a new weapons race.

“We do not think there is an arms race in space. The United States believes that the existing body of existing international agreements — including the Outer Space Treaty, as well as the liability and respective compensation conventions — provide the appropriate legal regime for space,” the State Department official said in a Jan. 19 telephone interview.


“Arms control is not a viable solution for space. For example, there is no agreement on how to define space weapon. Without a definition you are left with loopholes and meaningless limitations that endanger national security. No arms control is better than bad arms control,” the State Department official said.

Another issue of great importance is that even these tests constitute a danger to the existing satellites of all countries. Space debris is a problem even at the moment, even without the deliberate creation clouds of expanding debris. From the same news article:

“It made a lot of debris potentially affecting other satellites in [low Earth orbit]. We have to track each piece to see where it goes to see which satellites specifically are potentially at risk,” the aide said, adding: “I hope the U.S. does now spend more and take space situational awareness more seriously.”

Western society relies on satellite technology to a surprising degree, for communications, weather forecasting, GPS, all manor of sciences, and even spying.
Let us hope that saner and less ignorant minds steer national and international space policy back to calmer waters before it is too late.

Postscript: I couldn't help but notice that wikipedia's article on the Militarisation of Space, specifically the section describing the current US National Missile Defense, has been spoiled by some ones idea of a neutral point of view being the same thing as Fox's "fair and balanced".

The administration has continued to push the program, despite publicized failures and the objections of some scientists who oppose it. The projected cost of the program for the years 2004 to 2009 will be 53 billion US dollars, making it the largest single line in The Pentagon's budget.

Note the lack of any link or further discussion of the tests and failures, and the the use of some as to imply not many.

An honest and still non-partisan assessment would describe the many failures; how the many special conditions used in the successful tests largely invalidate them as honest tests of an operational defense; that many scientists oppose it and for reasons of both sound political science (i.e. they have sound reasons to believe that the NMD actually increases the chances of war, and/or that they have good reason to expect that unilaterally breaking international treaties might ultimately be a bad thing for the USA) and that fundamentally the science presents such challenges as to make it impossible to build a system that actually defends the average citizen within the foreseeable future).

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