China creates space debris, intentionally

CNN is running an article about how China has successfully testing an anti-satellite missile on one of their own old weather satellites. After three failures, a missile successfully destroyed the satellite, which was in orbit at 537 miles above the Earth. As low-Earth orbits go, that is actually pretty high (the International Space Station, for instance, is only 200 miles up, meaning it could easily be destroyed by one of these missiles). The CNN article goes into depth about all of the political implications of this, and they are important, but they neglect one important issue.

It’s really, really, really mind-bogglingly stupid to create more orbital debris, and by blowing up a satellite, China has now created thousands more pieces of debris. Space is already littered with innumerable amounts of debris, ranging from tiny flecks of paint all the way up to spent rocket boosters and dead satellites. Since there’s no air friction in space, these small bits are moving really, really quickly, and even a paint fleck can be deadly. We have already suffered damage in the past from space debris: satellites have been lost and space shuttles and the ISS have been damaged, all because of space debris. NASA does its damnedest to try and keep track of it all, but of course, they aren’t and can’t be perfect, and at some point in the future there is going to be a genuine disaster, involving the loss of human lives, hundreds of millions of dollars of space hardware, or both. This disaster could well be caused by debris from China’s absolutely idiotic and unnecessary intentional catastrophic collision in space.

The worst part about this, though, is that we are now one step closer to seeing the Kessler Syndrome start to manifest itself. The Kessler Syndrome is basically an orbital doomsday scenario that cuts off mankind’s access to space for thousands of years. The way it works is, some random collision occurs, creating many bits of space debris in orbit. These debris, in turn, end up hitting other things, shredding them, creating even more debris, in a Domino-like fashion. Eventually, everything in orbit is utterly destroyed, and the space around Earth is so polluted with space junk that it is impossible to even launch anything anymore, as it would be destroyed by random impacts almost immediately upon exiting the atmosphere. The scary thing is, the Kessler syndrome is already possible with the current amount of hardware we have in space. Luckily, almost all of it is up there in large controlled chunks, but all it could take is one apocalyptic collision to set a terrible chain of events into motion. This is why China’s test is so mind-numbingly stupid. Because once the Kessler Syndrome takes effect, the only solution with current technology is to wait it out, letting the space debris hit each other, lose momentum, and gradually burn up in the atmosphere. The process takes thousands of years before low orbit is safe to traverse again.

Distribution of debris in space
A schematic showing the locations of known debris in Earth orbit. Note the heavy concentrations in low-Earth orbit and geostationary orbit (click for larger view).

Update 2008-02-14: It looks like the United States are jealous of China’s screw-up in this regard, and want to create some space debris of their own! How colossally and terminally short-sighted can humanity get?!

42 Responses to “China creates space debris, intentionally”

  1. shaneminsoe Says:

    i want to new wallpaper.

  2. garzafzmily Says:


  3. Dumbest patent ever? | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    [...] many million dollar communications satellite is going to waste and we leave another large piece of space debris in Earth orbit. Absolutely [...]

  4. A space debris heads up | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    [...] China creates space debris, intentionally [...]

  5. Seeker Says:

    This is not good…. if they have missiles that can take out satellites that can pose a great threat to people… and for your statement garzafzmily; The human race is going to destroy each other before we can reach space commercially

  6. space R.E.B.U. Says:

    good, really good

    I am offering for the job of space junk gatherer, it should be paid well :)

  7. Old Man Miso Says:

    That job of space debris “trash collector” already has an anime of its own. A serious one, at that.
    Called: “Planetes”. Deals with that topic, as well as a few other concerns of the near-term use of, and life in, space.

  8. Knacker Says:


  9. scott Says:

    seeker, think positive. knacker, i dont know what shining a light at it will do, even with high intensity lasers its just gonna heat up an be a hunk of hot for a few hours. its still gonna be speeding around at 18,000 mph. a laser is just a beam of light and has no measurable mass therefore no measurable inertia so it cant push it away either. no i agree with the tracs collecting commercially, the only problem with it i see is what do you do with it once uve got it? bringin it back is not a great idea, were polluted enough down here as it is. i think it should be collected and strapped together at a very high orbit. then recycle it for new, more permenant space ventures.

  10. knacker Says:

    Yeah, seeker, think positive. We may wipe out only half to 3/4ths of the human race, creating a situation akin to the end of the plague, in which population had dropped off so much that almost everyone was rich and had enough resources, leading to the Renaissance.

  11. nicole Says:

    Scott, lasers could be attached to satellites to destroy smaller pieces of debris that threaten a space vehicle not to just move them “out of the way.”

  12. Cyde Weys Says:

    Nicole: Not likely at all. Unfortunately, lasers don’t work in the real world the same way that they do in, say, Star Wars. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to create a laser beam with the kind of effect you’d be looking for, energy that is viciously lacking in space. Also, in space, the tiniest particle of debris is dangerous. Remember that whole conservation of mass thing; lasers won’t evaporate debris, they’ll simply turn it into smaller chunks, which is more dangerous.

    The only way to deal with space debris is to deorbit it, which is incredibly hard.

  13. todd Says:

    Why not a rocket with a giant magnet, fly it thru orbit and into space hehehehe If theirs no gravity the metalic objects should change course to the magnet and go with the rocket. Providing it doesn’t get oblerated by the moving pieces lol

  14. Cyde Weys Says:

    Todd, a couple of problems with that. The electromagnetic force, like gravity, is affected by the inverse-square law. You can test this yourself by holding two magnets in your hands close together. Then move them twice that distance apart. The force you feel between them (either attractive or repulsive depending on pole alignment) will decrease by four times. Move them three times as far apart and the force decreases by nine times, etc. So it simply won’t work to sweep up debris from all but the smallest distances.

    Additionally, you would need a very powerful magnet. A permanent magnet is right out of the question, as for the size you’d need it’d be too difficult to launch into orbit. So you’d need a powerful electromagnet, but this creates yet another problem: where will you get all the electricity to power it?

    And lastly, a lot of the space junk up there isn’t ferrous. Because things we put into space need to be as light as possible, we tend to make them out of lighter materials, such as plastics and aluminum, which are not magnetic. Keep in mind the relative orbital speeds of space debris — many thousands of feet per second — and you realize why it doesn’t particularly matter what the debris is made of in terms of assessing its deadliness.

    So I’m not sure what a solution would even be. That’s why the Kessler Syndrome is so dangerous.

  15. j Says:

    send up more debris to accelerate the process of orbital decay of these objects.

  16. WeCanbGod2 Says:

    Scott and J are onto something… Send up more garbage, lash it all together with the other crap, and name it, “Trash Planet II” (Earth, being the first “Trash Planet”)

    See? We can be God, too! Destroy one planet, and create a new one from some of the junk from the first one, kinda like making Eve, from Adam’s rib, or the Moon, from the Earth.

  17. Matrix Says:

    nicole – don’t you think there will be even more smaller pieces if they destroy it with laser ? That means more of them and more danger !!! By pushing them away with some force will mean that they will at least go a bit farther away… which makes sense.

  18. William (green) Says:

    Todd’s idea may not work like that, but a vast network of microsats working on the same principle might work well. I mean, if you can just get a portion of the debris into trackable-sized chunks, that alone would help significantly.
    At least until we have Trek-style Bussard collectors, anyway.

  19. DGHarrison Says:

    Hey, maybe it’s a great opportunity to invest in Roomba. They’d create a bunch of mass-dense objects that simply get in the way of the zooming particles and absorb them. Make the objects so that they do not disintegrate, but become a substrate to which everything else sticks. After these Spaceba have been up for a while, sweeping all the tiny particles up, then send up a bigger unit, an Orba, to sweep up the big pieces. Eventually, rendezvous with the Orba, attach propellant rockets, and either decelerate the junk for burn-up in Earth’s atmosphere, or accelerate the junk to send it on a track toward the sun, where it will burn up.

  20. William (green) Says:

    That’s… a much better idea.

  21. Hac Says:

    you need a new editor.

  22. Alphonse Says:

    Cripes you guys have limited thinking capacity. We needs to get us some space fly paper. It’ll work cos it’s real light so it’s easy to get up there. Tape it together with space tape to make one giant sheet and then set it orbiting for a few years to collect all the crap. It can have a little rocket motor attached to the bottom corner so that when we are ready it can have a little nudge to send it earthwards where it and all the crap will burn up. Also it won’t be long till space ships have shields anyway. I went to space camp, I know what I’m talking about.

  23. R. Wiccan Says:

    First we put multiple ring shaped magnets (maybe electro-magnets powered by small nuclear reactors in the rocket bodies) around the top stages of orbital rockets, (the rocket is inside the center holes of the magnets)and fill the spaces between magnets with Silly Putty. These rockets are launched into the orbits of the densest clouds of debris, with velocities just a little faster or a little slower than the debris. Each orbit should vary a little over months or years so the magnets can go near the majority of the debris & the debris can embed itself in the Silly Putty. These rocket/magnet combos should stay in orbit permanently. More debis is sure to happen. Someday we will have to retrieve them (when we have squandered our natural resources) as a supply of metal.

  24. Boogs Says:

    I think that the debris will be a great defence against E.T’s attacking the home land!!

  25. victoria Says:

    Why not, it’s not like we havent trashed everything and everywhere else might as well take it into space!

  26. pete Says:

    i think if we equip each satellite with a tractor beam and a really hungry guy the hungry guy can eat all the leftovers in the trash he can also make a fort out of all the other junk so it will protect the sattilite from the chinese bombs im hungry

  27. Some Dude Says:

    We invest in space tractors! They’d only have to go a bit slower then the debris and just orbit around collecting all the space junk. They could be remote controlled and dock with the ISS for refueling and repairs. And then we can either send the junk up into the Sun or recycle what can be. It’s not the hard, just expensive.

    Of course Humanity WILL tear each other to pieces before committing to such a plan.

  28. DGHizz Says:

    We still haven’t cleaned up the floating island of plastic in the ocean and you are talking about cleaning up LEO? The Politicians will set up a committee to study the feasability of conducting a study that will be in committee for 30 years. Someone else needs to get up there with a private company and show feasability of safe junk mitigation and then offer the service to the countries with sats up there. Not gonna happen soon enough otherwise.

  29. Cyde Weys Says:

    Space junk is more of a long term problem than the Pacific garbage pack. Even if, somehow, the garbage problem in the Pacific reaches terminal conditions, we’ve only lost this one planet.

    If, on the other hand, we lose access to space, we loseall the planets, everywhere (however many billions there may be).

  30. imsmarterthanyou Says:

    wow ok do more research, they already have dozens of ground satellites tracking every peice of space debris bigger than 2” which is pretty damn good and any thing smalller than that is not even a minor problem for spaceships any way and some of these solutions you are suggesting are ludicris and meant to stay in scifi movies. btw DGHizz is probably an acurate forecast of what will really happen. if you havent noticed america is pretty screwed up right now so reform or at least repair our gov. before taking tthe weight of the world on our broken shoulders

  31. yas Says:

    the junks gonna stay up there and were all gonna die thanks AMERICA!

  32. Alyosha Gorham Says:

    People will probably think me stupid or crazy, but i hope the kessler syndrome happens. The person who posted this article asks,
    “How colossally and terminally short-sighted can humanity get?!”. In my opinion, how shortsighted can humanity be that the general
    conclusion is, well we can’t solve our problems here on Earth, let’s make them bigger, waste the resources we don’t use responsibly
    now to bung a few people into space. Just from a base profit\loss view of the situation of space travel it’s all loss. Billions of dollars
    time, energy, to what, satisfy simple curiosity, the desire to be first? Plant a fruit tree, live simply, seek contentment, not thrills.
    There is only so much for all the people on this planet and thrills are expensive. Contentment is easy.

  33. kevinjk Says:

    actually absorbing them would be ideal. a few large masses of soft material such as lead or even raw clay will absorb the impacts even though expensive to get to orbit. if you had them all put into one chunk though you wouldnt want them to come to earth, more economical would be to create a second moon or merge it with our current moon for a space station. in fact the moon itself is absorbing space debris as we speak. then if you needed some lead or whatever the space debris is collected as you could harvest it from space instead of having to create everything on earth and launch it to orbit. im sure theres a ton of precious metals in the older sattelites. all we need is a city on the moon! ill help build a city on the moon for free if anyone else wants to lol….

  34. Operator Says:

    There are literally thousands of objects we are currently tracking… They’re given a number (called an IRON) if they are larger than a dime. The outer band that you see is nothing to worry about (The part that looks like a ring). Those are in a geosynchronous orbit, and have assigned “parking spots”. the stuff that poses the threat is the junk that’s near us, because it can collide with the LEO satellites, creating more debris. Those are the satellites that give us DirecTV and Sirius and whatnot. Unfortunately there’s not much we can do about cleanup, it would cost billions. It’s up to us (the US) and China to be responsible and not make more of a mess just to prove how big our “junk” is. Lulz, like how i tied that in?

  35. Tim Says:

    Im not an expert but why don’t they just make satelites with small thrust rockets which can be controlled from earth and also include a selfdestruct bomb..

    job done… fly away > boom.. ?

    Or… just let every satelite fly home and recycle it.. they do the same with cars.. metal = metal

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  39. You're Dumb Says:

    yeah i honestly feel stupid from reading that. “the only solution is to wait it out for thousands of years” “a paint splat can be deadly” OO i mean really? i’m sure if that was ever to happen, very unlikely, seeing as how it’s not all on big “apocalyptic” chain of events, mankind could think of a way to clean up orbital space, if not now then surely in “thousands of years”. that was quite possible the worse explanation i’ve ever heard, using your ” science” to convince people of that. and btw, that wasn’t a dumb move; obviously if they’re practicing shooting down space satellites, they don’t WANT anything orbiting above them

  40. KatG Says:

    I’m thinking we should learn from this. Search for intelligent life could be found by looking for garbage orbitting earth like planets. ;)

  41. DDthreeSocks Says:

    And there it is folks, almost a scenario about this article coming to life……Space debris from this particular satellite came within 3 miles of the international space station today, 4 years after this article. The debris was 5 inches in diameter and traveling at 18000 MPH. Ironic!

  42. Canuck Says:

    The numerous Reagan run programs created absolutely ZERO extra debris and used magic teleportation devices to suck up all the shredded debris that the numerous “Star Wars” programs created with its tests.