WASHINGTON — The Chinese military used a ground-based missile to hit and destroy one of its aging satellites orbiting more than 500 miles in space last week, demonstrating China's ability to target regions of space that are home to U.S. spy satellites and missile-defense systems.
The test of anti-satellite technology is believed to be the first of its kind in 20 years by any nation, and it raised concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. satellites and a possible weapons race in space.
China's action drew protests from other nations with satellite programs, a predictable response that experts said illustrates Chinese officials' willingness to face broad international criticism when it comes to space, which they consider a key part of the push to modernize the military and increase the nation's ability to compete in high-tech warfare.
"The U.S. believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Thursday. "We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese."
He said the Chinese satellite was shot down using a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile, which slammed into its target 537 miles above Earth on Jan. 11. The magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology, which first reported the test online, said a Feng Yun 1C polar-orbit weather satellite was hit by a "kinetic kill vehicle" on board a ballistic missile launched at or near the Xichang Space Center in Sichuan province.
A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy said he had no information about the anti-satellite test.
China in 2003 became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to send a person into space aboard its own rocket. The communist country, fueled by the fastest-growing major economy, plans to send a robot to the moon to fetch lunar soil by 2017.
In addition to introducing a renewed military dimension to space, the destruction of the Chinese satellite created a large "debris cloud" that can seriously damage other satellites in nearby orbit, and possibly spacecraft on their way to the moon or beyond.
Analysts said that, based on computer models, up to 300,000 pieces of debris may have been created. While many would be very small, they said, hundreds would be large enough to create potentially serious problems.
The United States and the former Soviet Union tested anti-satellite technology in the 1980s, and the United States shot down one of its orbiting satellites in 1985. Partly as a result of the debris problem, both sides stopped the programs.
The Chinese test comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over space.
China is leading an effort in the United Nations to set up an international conference on what many consider to be an imminent space-weapons race. The United States has been the one space-faring nation to oppose the idea, arguing that it isn't needed because there is no weapons race in space.
In October, President Bush signed an order asserting the United States' right to deny adversaries access to space for hostile purposes. As part of the first revision of U.S. space policy in nearly 10 years, the policy also said the United States would oppose the development of treaties or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.
"Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power," the policy said. "In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective and efficient space capabilities."
What drove China to act now remains a mystery. But the United States has to figure out how to respond, said John Pike, a satellite expert at globalsecurity.org.
"Our space assets are the first asset on the scene," Pike said. "They are absolutely central to why we are a superpower, a signature component to America's style of warfare."
The U.S. military is especially dependent on satellites for navigation, communications and missile guidance, while the U.S. economy could also be broadly damaged by disruptions of communications, weather and other satellites.
The United States retains the ability to destroy low-orbit satellites and has been conducting research on more advanced systems for years.
Officials briefed on the test said the Chinese ballistic missile reached as high as some U.S. spy satellites are positioned. Other satellites positioned at the same altitude are part of the missile-defense network the U.S. military is assembling. Sources said a hit-to-destroy ballistic missile could knock out any satellites at that low orbit.
Many sensitive communications satellites are much higher, some 22,000 miles above Earth, and officials said Thursday the recent test does not prove China has the capability to disrupt those systems.
The issue of possible hostilities in space became more real in August, when National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr said a U.S. satellite had recently been "painted," or illuminated, by a ground-based laser in China. The United States did not make a formal protest then, but it did this week over the latest Chinese action.
"American satellites are the soft underbelly of our national security," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, said in a statement today.
"It is urgent that President Bush move to guarantee their protection by initiating an international agreement to ban the development, testing, and deployment of space weapons and anti-satellite systems."
Additional information from Bloomberg News and The Associated Press
Why it matters
Destroying one of its satellites demonstrates China's potential to target U.S. spy satellites and space-based missile-defense systems.
Debris from the destruction could threaten some of 66 communications satellites on which commercial and military clients rely. Power, water supply, gas and oil storage, banking and finance and government services rely on communications via satellites.
The military uses satellites for missile tracking, intelligence gathering and secure voice communications with troops on the ground.
China in 2003 became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to send a person into space and plans to send a robot to the moon by 2017.