Tag: satellite

Iran’s Sputnik

Earlier this week, Iran put a satellite into space for the first time. The AP covered it on Wednesday, February 4:

The telecommunications satellite – called Omid, or hope, in Farsi – was launched late Monday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.

At least unofficially, some experts within the U.S. government seem to be trying to play down the importance of this event — comparing it without context to a Soviet launch more than 50 years ago:

A U.S. counterproliferation official confirmed the launch and suggested the technology was not sophisticated. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering, the official said it appeared it “isn’t too far removed from Sputnik,” the first Soviet orbiter launched in 1957.

However, as The New York Times reported, not everyone in the government dismisses the significance of this technological achievement:

In Washington, the State Department called the event worrisome. “Iran’s development of a space launch vehicle establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems,” said Robert A. Wood, a department spokesman.

At the White House, Robert Gibbs sounded fairly hawkish too.

My dissertation had a lengthy case study chapter on the U.S. reaction to Sputnik — it was certainly not “ho-hum.” At the time, U.S. security experts believed that a state that could put a satellite into space could probably launch a missile soon. Threat perceptions soared. Sputnik dominated the news for weeks. It was a VERY BIG DEAL.

Interestingly, in its story about the Iranian launch, Voice of America quoted an expert who makes the launch sound defensive:

“They want a nuclear weapon to defend their territory, defend their government. They live in a very tough neighborhood. They are surrounded by nuclear states – Russia, China, Pakistan, India. And, too, Israel and the United States,” The Ploughshares Fund, President Joseph Cirincione explains.

However, Sam Sedaei at the Huffington Post seems to think the media overplayed the alleged threat signaled by Iran’s satellite — and he’s not talking about the right-wing media. Sedaei criticizes the Times and The Guardian!

Despite this concern, I think the coverage was reasonably balanced and I applaud the Obama administration for exhibiting some concern without panic. As we all recall from the Iraq debate, there’s more than one way for public officials and media to address this kind of stuff.

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How is this a good idea?

I’m sure you’ve all be closely following the story of the 5000-pound, bus-sized top-secret satellite that is tumbling toward earth and set to re-enter the atmosphere in the next several weeks. The satellite, reportedly a top-secret NRO advanced imaging device launched in December 2006, died soon after launch. Its big enough that a sizable chunk is expected to survive the re-entry process. Obviously the most important question of the day is who will the satellite land on when it returns to earth….

Today we learn that the Bush administration has decided to have the military shoot down the satellite. The NYT reports:

Only twice in history has any nation shot an actual satellite down: China did it last year, and the United States more than 20 years ago.

The Bush Administration claims that it only has humanitarian interests and public safety as its chief concerns.

President Bush ordered the action to prevent any possible contamination from that hazardous rocket fuel on board, and not out of any concern that parts of the spacecraft might survive and its secrets be revealed, officials said….

It contains a half-ton of hydrazene, a rocket fuel that officials said can burn the lungs and even is deadly in extended doses….

The fuel tank is believed sturdy enough to survive re-entry, based on studies of the fuel tank that fell to earth after the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Officials said that the slushy frozen fuel would have then been released wherever it came down….

Although White House, military and NASA officials described the president’s decision as motivated solely by wanting to avoid a spread of toxic fuel in an inhabited area, it has implications for missile defense and antisatellite weapons.

“This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings,” said James Jeffrey, the deputy national security adviser.

And to keep anyone from somehow recovering any top-secret parts, and, of course, sending not at all subtle signals to China.

The challenging mission to demolish it instead on the fringes of space will rely on an unforeseen use of ship-based weapons developed to defend against ballistic missile attacks. That makes it a real-world test both of the nation’s antiballistic missile systems and its antisatellite capabilities, even though the Pentagon said that they were not using the exercise to test their most exotic weapons or send a message to any adversaries.

Riiiiiight.

In many ways, the task resembles shooting down an intercontinental nuclear missile, although in this case the target is larger, its path is better known, and if a first shot misses, it will continue to circle the earth for long enough to allow a second or even a third try….

Even so, the ramifications of the operation are diplomatic as well as military and scientific, in part because the United States criticized China last year when Beijing used a defunct weather satellite as a target in a test of an antisatellite system.

China shoots down one of its own defunct satellites in high-earth orbit, creating tons of space junk (junk, incidentally, that poses a greater threat to US military satellite capability than the a-sat capability itself), and the US offers massive protests and condemnation. Now, less than a year later, the US seeks to do roughly the same thing, only in a lower orbit, and its OK. The Chinese and Russians vehemently protest the development and deployment of US missile defense systems, and the US will activate and use them in this operation. Exactly what what message is China (and Russia) supposed to get here?

A Congressional Democrat considered one of the party’s experts on missile defense agreed that the United States had to take responsibility for any threat posed by the satellite, but she warned that the nation needed to be open in the effort as it will be a precedent for other countries.

“Just like our partners in space, we need to be responsible for the risks we create,” said Representative Ellen O. Tauscher of California, who is chairwoman of the House strategic forces subcommittee. “This can’t be a demonstration of an offensive capability.”

Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, warned that China would cite the intercept to justify the antisatellite test it conduct last year.

“The politics are terrible,” Mr. Lewis said. “It will be used by the Chinese to excuse their hit-to-kill test. And it really strengthens the perceived link between antisatellite systems and missile defenses. We will be using a missile defense system to shoot down a satellite.”

Who thought this was a good idea?

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China Launches a Bid (for hegemony)?


China is in the Satellite business.

The NYT reports that China is launching a communications satellite for Nigeria (pictured right).

The lead says it all:

For years, China has chafed at efforts by the United States to exclude it from full membership in the world’s elite space club. So lately China seems to have hit on a solution: create a new club.

Beijing is trying to position itself as a space benefactor to the developing world — the same countries, in some cases, whose natural resources China covets here on earth. The latest and most prominent example came last week when China launched a communications satellite for Nigeria, a major oil producer, in a project that serves as a tidy case study of how space has become another arena where China is trying to exert its soft power.

This past semester, in my Hegemony and US Foreign Policy class, we talked about China often–usually in terms of a ‘hegemonic challenger.’ One of the point that we often noted, however, was that a hegemonic challenger must do two things: 1) overthrow the old hegemonic order, in this case, knock the US off its block as teh global #1, and 2) replace it with a new hegemonic order. In most of our discussions, we concluded China not really keen on either–instead treating the US as a rival (as opposed to an enemy) and looking to improve its own position within the system, as China now benefits tremendously from certain aspects of the current US order–especially in areas such as trade.

The key line in the lead is “form its own club.” Space has long been seen as a global commons, one where the US can provide certain public goods (such as satellite communication and navigation) and exercise its Command of the Commons as a foundational aspect of US Hegemony. Here you have not just China challenging that US order, but starting its own club for other states with similar interests.

You also see the invocation of “Soft Power.” I must admit, we read a lot of Nye in the class (probably second only to Ikenberry on the syllabus) and his work was popular with the students. The notion of Soft Power as a tool for hegemonic management is the heart of Nye’s work–get them to like you and want what you want so you don’t have to force them to do what you need them to do–and here you have the NYT reading China in that light.

The second interesting thing is the impetus toward the move into space. What I found notable was that the NYT managed, in the span of 3 brief paragraphs, provide ample evidence for Constructivist, Liberal, and Realist explanations of this launch:

For China, the strategy is a blend of self-interest, broader diplomacy and, from a business standpoint, an effective way to break into the satellite market. Satellites have become status symbols and technological necessities for many countries that want an ownership stake in the digital world dominated by the West, analysts say….

China’s more grandiose space goals, which include building a Mars probe and, eventually, putting an astronaut on the moon, are based on an American blueprint in which space exploration enhances national prestige and advances technological development. But Beijing also is focused on competing in the $100 billion commercial satellite industry….

Satellites also are becoming vital to Beijing’s domestic development plans. In the next several years, China could launch as many as 100 satellites to help deliver television to rural areas, create a digital navigational network, facilitate scientific research and improve mapping and weather monitoring. Research centers on microsatellites have opened in Beijing, Shanghai and Harbin, and a new launching center is under construction in Hainan Province….

But China’s focus on satellites has also brought suspicions, particularly from the United States, since most satellites are “dual use” technologies, capable of civilian and military applications. Currently, China is overhauling its military in a modernization drive focused, in part, on developing the capacity to fight a “high tech” war.

Constructivism: Prestige, status, and identity: having a Satellite shows you’re one of the cool kids.
Liberalism: Maximize gains: satellites as income generating, development promoting devices with a key focus on domestic political factors.
Realism: Enhances military power relative to the USA.

All that from one fun picture.

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