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.
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?!