JOE PALCA, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca. Ira Flatow is away.

Last week the Chinese military tested an anti-satellite weapon using what's called a kinetic kill vehicle to shoot down an old Chinese weather satellite orbiting some 500 miles above the Earth. The United States' last-known test of a similar system was in the mid-1980s. Chinese diplomats say the test was intended to be a kind - wasn't intended at all to be a provocation or the start of a weapons race in orbit. There currently are no treaties governing space weapon systems however.

Later this hour, the latest toys for high-energy physicists, but first a look at whether space is the final frontier or the next battlefield. Joining me now to talk about this is Victoria Samson. She is a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. She joins me from the studios of member station KSTX in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome back to the program, Victoria Samson.

Ms. VICTORIA SAMSON (Research Analyst, Center for Defense Information): Thank you for having me.

PALCA: And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. If you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our Web site at www.sciencefriday.com where you'll find links to our topic.

So was this a test - which I gather took place on January 11th but wasn't sort of official announced until this past week. Was this a surprise?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, NORAD knew to keep an eye on it. We have repeated reports that they were actually monitoring the satellite, the Chinese satellite in question, but China...

PALCA: NORAD is?

Ms. SAMSON: NORAD - North American Air Defense Command.

PALCA: Right.

Ms. SAMSON: They're the United States military portion that are in charge of monitoring what's up in the skies. But the Chinese government did not announce that they would be holding a test ahead of time; possibly because they weren't sure whether it was actually going to be working, possibly because they maybe weren't even planning on having it, possibly because they didn't realize how incredibly controversial it'd end up being.

PALCA: Why controversial?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, there are currently officially no space weapons programs. I say officially, because there are programs that may have dual-use capabilities. The United States has always said that it would not support discussions for a treaty trying to prevent weaponizing space because there are no space weapons programs. So it's possible that a dual-use program could have been used in order to spur the United States towards the negotiating table.

PALCA: Dual-sure, what does that mean in this context?

Ms. SAMSON: In this context it would be something like a space satellite, for example, that could be either used to collect information or it could have some sort of maneuvering capability in order to actually ram into another satellite, in which case it would be an anti-satellite weapon.

PALCA: OK. Talk a little about the Chinese test. Was that - what was the technology used and is it particularly sophisticated or not?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, what they did is they launched one of their ballistic missiles from the ground at a weather satellite that they knew where it would be and what time it would be there. And they were able to directly run their - the kill vehicle, the ballistic missile with its warhead, into the satellite, and the sheer impact of the connection was able to destroy the satellite. Supposedly is - officially, there are 32 fragments that they are following that are over 10 centimeters wide, about the size of a softball, but there could be hundreds or thousands of pieces of debris from the satellite floating around the orbit where it was.

PALCA: Is this - I mean from a technological standpoint, is this difficult? Because I mean it's one thing to say, well, we know where it is, but it's still using a missile to shoot at something 550 miles away and hitting it. It's not a very big satellite, I presume, so it's a pretty small target and it's pretty far away.

Ms. SAMSON: Right, the satellite was at about 850 kilometers up. It was about five feet square with 25-foot wingspans on it. But it really - yeah, you're right. It was definitely quite a coup for the Chinese in order to directly intercept it. Having said that, there was some finagling of the satellite. They moved it the last moment to make an orbit which was a little bit easier for the ballistic missile to see. But absolutely, it is a big step.

It does not - just because they did it once, however, does not mean that they can do it repeatedly, again and again and again. I think you could see the same criticism for the U.S. missile defense system along the same lines. They've made a few intercepts. It does not mean they have a reliable system. It does, however, mean that there are movements toward weaponizing space and that we need to make it a priority to sit down and discuss what is going to be acceptable behavior in space and what is not.

PALCA: Well, now just to be clear, you mentioned that the U.S. is developing an antiballistic missile system of some sort - of a sort. Why isn't that considered a space weapon itself?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, the United States seems to have a policy of - do as we say, not as we do - in regards to this. Officially we have not asked for funding for a space-based missile defense system. In the coming up fiscal year 2008 budget request, which they're going to start asking for in February. They're looking at getting something about $45 million for research and development on a space test bed. And this is where there'd be looking towards putting interceptors up in space as part of a missile defense system. Think back to Reagan's Star Wars. We're looking more along that sort of line. So officially we haven't done it yet, but once we look for the funding for that, then we will have done it. So I've always thought a discussion by the United States that there are no space weapons program was pretty nebulous and not really supported by facts.

PALCA: Right. So if the Chinese were saying, look, we're not trying to initiate a space weapons race here, what were they - what do they say they were trying to do?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, they still claim that they promote the peaceful use of space and they don't want the weaponization of space. They really haven't said specifically what they were hoping to accomplish with this test, which was absolutely provocative and irresponsible on how much debris it created. And just the sheer fact that they held it to begin with, I think it may have crossed a threshold that we may not be able to go back to very easily. But they also may have domestic concerns. It could be possible that their own domestic, political research and development groups wanted to see what they could accomplish. Maybe they didn't think they were actually going to do it. Supposedly they've had three other tests that were not successful, so they may have been caught by surprise by how successful this test was.

PALCA: We're talking about the recent Chinese ballistic missile test, and we're taking your calls at 1-800-989-8255. And let's take a call now from Jeff in Jacksonville. Is it Jacksonville, Illinois? Is that right? Or Jacksonville, Florida, I'm sorry.

JEFF (Caller): Yeah, Jacksonville, Florida.

PALCA: Right.

JEFF: Thanks for taking my call.

PALCA: Uh-huh.

JEFF: My comment and question was it seems to be common policy in the U.S. - and your guest briefly touched on it - do as we say, not as we do. We've been, since the Reagan era, we've been actively researching and developing, quote, "Star Wars," unquote, weapons, directed energy weapons, space-based weapons. And essentially, while no one else had the capability, we were quite interested and blasé about developing very, very sophisticated space-based weapons. And now that the Chinese have tested a very rudimentary kinetic energy weapon, suddenly the whole world's up in arms about weaponization of space. That's my comment. And my question would be as how far along is the U.S. in R&D, and I know there's a lot of black-type programs under the Pentagon's budget...

PALCA: You mean black - by black you...

JEFF: ...Aren't we quite far along in these (unintelligible)...

PALCA: By black you mean hidden programs, right?

JEFF: Yeah, hidden programs, right, that are off - that aren't described in the budgetary process. How far along are we in developing quite sophisticated, both ground-based and space-based weapons that are threats to satellites of other countries, etc.

PALCA: OK, let's see what Victoria Samson has to say about that.

Ms. SAMSON: Well, as you said, a lot of these programs are black or classified, so it's really difficult to say what exactly is happening especially if they're being done under the aegis of being dual-use or they're being promoted as a civilian program.

Now one example I could think of is the Missile Defense Agency's Near Field Infrared Experiment, or NFIRE. Ostensibly that's a program where they just want to shoot up some satellites to collect some infrared data so they can use it for later modeling and simulation. But in actuality it could very well be an anti-satellite weapons program in disguise, and so it's really difficult to figure out where they're going with these sort of capabilities.

The United States - back in '85 we had a test of our anti-satellite weapon. It was a interceptor launched from an F-15, and that was the last time we had one of our anti-satellite weapons tests. The Soviets had their own version of anti-satellite weapons where they would have co-orbital - as it was called - shoot satellites and try and intercept from there. But officially, we really don't have anything that would be able to do it. It doesn't mean that we couldn't ramp up things very quickly. We looked at the budget request from last year, and there could be maybe $1 billion for programs that could have that kind of space weapons capability. But again, it's really hard to say, just because a lot of it is classified and a lot of it is being masked with other sort of technical capabilities that they're shooting for.

PALCA: Can you describe the reason that someone would want to put a weapon in space. I mean I'm not sure I completely see the value over ground-based weapons.

Ms. SAMSON: Well, I'm probably not the right person to ask about that because I don't - I agree. I don't think there is any kind of military capability you're gaining. Putting something up in space is incredibly expensive. It's about $10,000 per pound in order to get it up in orbit. And then once it's up there, it's almost impossible to replace and it's very difficult to do any kind of maintenance.

The reason why people I think talk about space weapons is because the United States, and other countries to a lesser extent, but really the United States depends very heavily upon its satellites for its eyes in the sky for military communications, for taking pictures of the planet, things like that. And so if we were to lose it, our space assets are vulnerable, and I think that's kind of more of a bogeyman sort of mentality. Well, what if we lost it? We'd be totally without any kind of strength.

Whereas there are other ways in which we could defend our space assets. We could figure out what's going on, what's called space situational awareness, where we just try and keep an eye on what's happening up there. It's pretty poor. If a satellite stops working, we don't really know why. We could try and improve our space situational awareness. We don't assume the worst if a satellite stops working. We can try and have a quicker response time. In case a satellite stops working. Right now, it'd take several months to get a new satellite up. If we could try and make it quicker, then we wouldn't be quite so vulnerable. Things like that.

PALCA: All right, well, thanks for coming in and giving us your thoughts on this topic.

Ms. SAMSON: Well, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

PALCA: Victoria Samson is a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. And when we come back, high energy physics. So stay with us.

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