Will fragments of a Chinese satellite threaten
Hubble and other orbiting instruments? NASA/ESA
On January 11, China launched a missile that destroyed one of its weather satellites. Although Beijing may tell the U.S. State Department and the world that the action isn't a threat, it actually is. Surely, this will spur greater militarization of space.
Should China — or any other nation — continue experiments like this, there could be grave consequences. On October 2006, President George W. Bush signed the National Space Policy paper proclaiming his nation's right to reply with force against any country or group whose aggressive actions deny, disrupt, or destroy U.S. satellites. Cowboy diplomacy reaches the final frontier?
In addition, the satellite destroyed by the Chinese missile orbited 500 miles above Earth. The impact caused tens of thousands of fragments measuring less than 4″ to orbit Earth. It will be a decade before most of this debris burns up in Earth's atmosphere.
Hubble orbits about 375 miles above Earth, the space station about 220 miles. In the grand scheme of space, that's a stone's throw. The more fragments litter the traffic in Earth's orbit, the greater danger posed to these spacecraft and other satellites.
In the case of the immediate threat — 40,000+ tiny, orbiting Chinese bullets — I am thankful CBS's communication satellites that will transmit this weekend's Superbowl orbit 23,000 miles above Earth.