The Destruction of the FY-1C

First published Fall 2015, Crosslink® magazine.

chinese satelliteOn January 11, 2007, the Chinese government destroyed one of its weather satellites, the Fengyun-1C (FY-1C), in a test and demonstration of that country’s antisatellite capability. The debris cloud generated was the largest such event ever recorded, and created an estimated 300,000 objects of 1 centimeter or larger—big enough to be fatal to a satellite mission. Of those, approximately 3300 were 10 centimeters or greater in size, large enough to be tracked and added to the resident space object catalog.

The Fengyun (wind cloud) weather satellites were first deployed in the late 1980s. FY-1C was launched on May 10, 1999, into a polar, sun-synchronous, low Earth orbit, with an inclination of approximately 99 degrees. This is one of the best orbits for science and Earth-observation missions, and is used by all spacefaring nations.

The debris cloud created by FY-1C poses significant and ongoing risks to satellites that share its heavily traveled orbit, and complicates the launch and deployment  of new satellite missions. Moreover, because of FY-1C’s base altitude, it will require many decades for atmospheric drag to slow the individual pieces of debris enough to cause reentry
and clean them from orbit.

The combination of the high number of objects in FY-1C’s debris cloud, their orbits causing frequent conjunctions (close approaches) with other spacecraft, and the longevity of their presence on orbit all serves to highlight the extreme danger to space missions of orbital debris. Since the destruction of FY-1C, no nation has intentionally created significant long-lived orbital debris.

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—Ted Muelhaupt