While the US was shooting down the malfunctioning satellite that posed a danger to those on the ground should it have reentered Earth's atmosphere intact, the Chinese were saying that we were escalating the militarization of space by doing so. Never mind the Chinese military has destroyed one of their defunct weather satellites in anti-satellite tests, leaving debris in orbits that endangers existing and future spacecraft. The defunct US spy satellite's debris will reenter the atmosphere over the next 40 days, posing little, if any danger to anyone. But that's not the point.
The Chinese have pressed forward with the militarization of space. Now that we've responded to their efforts we've somehow become the bad guys. So what else is new?
Contrast this operation with what happened a year ago January, when Beijing surprised the world by shooting down one of its weather satellites in a test of its antisatellite capabilities. Not only was the test unannounced, but it took China days to concede that it had happened. Because the satellite was destroyed at an altitude of approximately 850 kilometers, it left countless hazardous particles drifting in orbit that could harm future space flights.
Meanwhile, Washington has gone out of its way both to alert other countries of this operation and to avoid the kind of dangers posed by Beijing's last launch. The satellite was hit at a low altitude to ensure that most of the debris re-enters either to burn up during descent or to land in the ocean. The Pentagon hosted a press conference last week to discuss the diplomatic and technological aspects of the operation. A military spokesman said this week that a press statement will be issued "within an hour" of the missile launch.
The Chinese did their tests in secret. The US was open about it, not hiding anything.
But then again, maybe we have hidden something.
Some of the proverbial “talk around the water cooler” at work brought forth the proposal the malfunctioning spy satellite was nothing of the sort. Instead, it was a purpose-built target for testing the new Navy Standard Missile-3 against a spaceborne target to prove it could be used to intercept incoming ballistic missiles or warheads. It may have also served another purpose.
Hitting a satellite the size of a bus in a predictable orbit has to be easier than destroying a ballistic missile launched by an enemy. Even so, the successful shootdown is a useful warning to countries such as Iran, Syria and North Korea that are building ballistic missile programs. In the U.S., it might even silence diehard critics, who still say missile defense is impossible despite a string of successful tests. By the way, the systems used in the satellite shootdown wouldn't be up to the job had the U.S. not withdrawn in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which imposed serious technological constraints.
It will certainly give our enemies and potential enemies something to think about in the near future.