BEIJING – Scientists have concluded that a Chinese missile test in January that smashed an aging weather satellite was the messiest space event ever, adding more than 1,500 big scraps of debris to a junkyard that’s orbiting the Earth.
They said it may only be a matter of time before a weather, communications or other satellite – or the manned International Space Station – slams into space rubbish.
The debris travels through space at about 17,400 mph, 10 times faster than a bullet from a high-powered rifle and 100 times faster than a racecar. A millimeter-sized orbiting fleck of aluminum can have the kinetic energy of a bullet against a billion-dollar satellite, said Fernand Alby, the chief of debris monitoring at the French space agency, CNES.
“The breakup of Fengyun-1C is by far the most severe satellite breakup ever in terms of identified debris,” said Nicholas I. Johnson, the chief scientist for orbital debris at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The missile that China launched from the Xichang space center in Sichuan province obliterated a defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite and showed the country’s space might.
At first, scientists spotted 700 or so large pieces of debris from the test. But Johnson said the U.S. Space Surveillance Network later tracked more than 1,500 large shards from the shattered Chinese satellite.
Senior U.S. military officers, caught by surprise by the Chinese test, have voiced strong irritation at what they say was the reckless creation of a 2,000-mile-long cloud of space debris.
“Platforms costing billions of dollars to replace and the lives of astronauts from many nations are now at risk from debris left by China’s recent ill-advised anti-satellite test,” Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees space activities, told a House of Representatives panel earlier this month.
China has defended the test but hasn’t addressed the debris.