U.S. experts think China is preparing to perform another anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January.
“The first media report on these rumours appeared in October,” wrote Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists on a blog post dated January 4th. “China’s Ministry of Defence challenged the information in that report, but in November contacts in China told us an announcement about an upcoming ASAT test was circulated within the Chinese government.”
Rumours of an upcoming anti-satellite test have been circulating for several months in the U.S. defense and intelligence community. China has previously carried out ASAT tests on January 11th 2007 and 2010, so it is possible that they plan to carry out the test on the same date this year. In the 2007 test China destroyed the defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite via an anti-satellite device. The explosion created approximately 3000 pieces of debris. The 2010 test used a similar technology to destroy an object that was not in orbit.
The target of the possible test remains unclear. Some U.S. officials suspect China may want to target the medium Earth orbit (MEO) region, which can be viewed as a potential threat to the U.S. and Russian navigational satellites. However, Kulacki is not sure that the possibly imminent ASAT test, would necessarily be as destructive as the 2007 event. On the contrary, it could involve a technology that doesn’t physically destroy the satellite. Since China is planning to put more navigational satellites in MEO, it’s unlikely they would risk creating more debris which could affect their own satellites.
China is not the sole instigator of ASAT tests. Both the United States and the former Soviet Union conducted equally destructive ASAT tests during the development of their space programs. They eventually decided to stop these tests due to the danger to their own space presence; hopefully China will do the same.