In 2007, the Chinese blew up one of their own weather satellites 530 miles above the Earth by hitting it with a missile. The satellite itself was essentially worthless, but the test had greater implications. It was the first time the Chinese had demonstrated their anti-satellite capabilities, reigniting anxieties about military confrontations in outer space.
The U.S. and Russia have long possessed anti-satellite weapons, but it had been over two decades since they were previously tested.
The underlying threat of this most recent test is that the Chinese could just as easily destroy another country's valuable satellites. With about half of the more than 900 functioning satellites, the U.S. is uniquely exposed to this threat.
We rely on satellites for civilian uses such as TV, Internet, ATM banking, GPS, agriculture, weather forecasting, and so on. On the military side, we use satellites to guide munitions, operate Predator drones, gather intelligence, monitor enemy movements, and detect nuclear sites (such as Iran's clandestine facility near Qom, which was located by the GeoEye-1 satellite).
Although the probability of hostile anti-satellite weapons use remains remote, it is a worrisome possibility. Of more immediate concern, the Chinese test generated a significant amount of debris that now poses a threat to operational satellites and other space vehicles.
Though there is already a large amount of potentially harmful debris in space resulting from over 50 years of human activities there, the Chinese contribution was significant. Of the more than 19,000 objects in Earth orbit that are ten centimeters in diameter or larger, the Chinese test is responsible for roughly 2,000 of them. Objects of this size could easily destroy a satellite through on-orbit collision.
It may seem that this debris is insignificant compared to the vastness of outer space. However, the actual space in which satellites operate is much smaller than one would think, and it is these orbital areas that are getting overcrowded.
Aside from dangerous debris and the potential for hostilities, there are simply more actors engaging in outer space activities, which heightens competition and the potential for miscommunication.
The Obama administration is well aware of the increasingly volatile situation in outer space. In an interim version of the Space Posture Review, released to Congress in early March, the administration acknowledged that "An increasingly congested and contested environment threatens both U.S. systems and the ability of the global community to access and use space." The full review is due out this summer and hopefully it will chart a course of cooperation and coordination.
The Bush administration emphasized a policy of space dominance. It sought to preserve U.S. freedom of action, while actively opposing anyone that might limit that freedom. This is the wrong approach.
A space-dominance policy could conceivably oblige the U.S. to periodically use force to protect its interests in outer space. However, since there is currently no effective way to clean up space debris, even the successful use of force would endanger U.S. space assets by further polluting outer space.
Moreover, a unilateral space-dominance posture could encourage others to be confrontational. Indeed, it may be that the Chinese anti-satellite test was in response to the Bush administration's aggressive space policy.
More benignly, the increasing number of actors makes information-sharing and traffic management that much more important. This was demonstrated in early 2009 by the accidental collision of a defunct Russian spy satellite and an operational communications satellite owned by the U.S.-based company Iridium.
The U.S. is still the clear hegemon in outer space -- more so even than it is on Earth -- but it cannot unilaterally dominate for long. We should work to enhance cooperation and coordination in space while we still have the power to shape the system.
The long-term goal should be to create an effective international regime that coordinates space activities, creates rules governing behavior, and punishes infractions.
In the short-term, the U.S. should seek to strengthen adherence to the voluntary Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which were formulated by the world's major space agencies in 2002; it should facilitate coordination and information-sharing among satellite operators; it should support transparency and confidence-building measures with regards to satellite launches; and it should work with space-faring nations to create a set of basic voluntary guidelines about acceptable behavior in space.
The era of U.S.-Soviet space dominance has ended. Governing space can no longer be accomplished through bilateral agreements between superpowers. A comprehensive space governance regime is necessary, and the Obama administration needs to start laying the foundation now.