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Fri, Jan 19, 2007

China Plays Coy On Test Of Satellite-Killer Missile

Other Nations Fear Launch Of New Arms Race In Space

There's a new space race brewing... and it echoes many of the fears that resonated in the late 1950s as the United States and Russia sent their first rockets into orbit. This time, however, it's China stoking those worries.

Officials have confirmed the emerging superpower used a ground-based ballistic missile to blow apart an aging Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite January 11. The medium-range ballistic missile was launched near China's Xichang Space Center.

The successful test was the first such 'satellite killer' test in more than 20 years, and the first from the Chinese... although Reuters reports a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman would not confirm or deny the test took place.

"I can't say anything about the reports. I really don't know; I've only seen the foreign reports," Liu Jianchao said. "What I can say is that, as a matter of principle, China advocates the peaceful use of space and opposes the weaponization of space, and also opposes any form of arms race."

Officials in the US were the first to confirm the test took place. Soon, Australia, Britain, and Canada joined the outcry surrounding the test, and Japan -- the country that, arguably, has the most to fear from its neighbor to the north -- added its opposition to what could be an imminent space-arms race Friday.

"We are concerned about it firstly from the point of view of peaceful use of space and secondly from the safety perspective," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.

Potential safety issues are not limited to future use of space for militaristic purposes... but also in the near-term, as scientists fear the explosion scattered debris that could damage other satellites and structures in orbit.

David Wright, representing the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Reuters the satellite may have broken into as many as 40,000 fragments ranging up to four inches in length... and that half of that shrapnel could remain in orbit for the next 10 years.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters "we have concerns about the impact of debris in space and we've expressed that concern," adding the test appeared to be "inconsistent with the spirit of China's statement to the UN and other bodies on the military use of space."

The last satellite-killer test using a ballistic missile took place in 1985, by the United States. The US halted the tests soon thereafter, over concerns about debris. Similar tests by the then-Soviet Union were also halted.

Recent efforts in the field have focused on using ground-based lasers. The technology could be used to destroy orbiting spy satellites.

China launched its first manned space capsule into orbit in 2003, becoming only the third nation to do so. It followed that mission with a two-man, four-day orbital flight in October 2005. The country is said to be working on, among other projects, a manned orbiting station and several missions (manned and unmanned) to the moon.

FMI: www.fas.org/spp/guide/china/index.html

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