Story Highlights• Chinese use a missile to ram and destroy an old, orbiting satellite
• Experts: China now may have ability to knock out U.S. GPS and spy satellites
• Washington issues formal diplomatic protest
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- China last week successfully used a missile to destroy an orbiting satellite, U.S. government officials told CNN on Thursday, in a test that could undermine relations with the West and pose a threat to satellites important to the U.S. military.
According to a spokesman for the National Security Council, the ground-based, medium-range ballistic missile knocked an old Chinese weather satellite from its orbit about 537 miles above Earth. The missile carried a "kill vehicle" and destroyed the satellite by ramming it.
The test took place on January 11. (Watch why the U.S. has protested the missile strike )
Aviation Week and Space Technology first reported the test: "Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C (FY-1C) polar orbit weather satellite launched in 1999 was attacked by an asat (anti-satellite) system launched from or near the Xichang Space Center."
A U.S. official, who would not agree to be identified, said the event was the first successful test of the missile after three failures.
The official said that U.S. "space tracking sensors" confirmed that the satellite is no longer in orbit and that the collision produced "hundreds of pieces of debris," that also are being tracked.
The United States logged a formal diplomatic protest.
"We are aware of it and we are concerned, and we made it known," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Several U.S. allies, including Canada and Australia, have also registered protests, and the Japanese government said it was worrisome.
"Naturally, we are concerned about it from the viewpoint of security as well as peaceful use of space," said Yashuhisa Shiozaki, chief cabinet secretary. He said Japan has asked the Chinese government for an explanation.
Britain has complained about lack of consultation before the test and potential damage from the debris it left behind, The Associated Press reported.
The United States has been able to bring down satellites with missiles since the mid-1980s, according to a history of ASAT programs posted on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site. In its own test, the U.S. military knocked a satellite out of orbit in 1985.
Under a space policy authorized by President Bush in August, the United States asserts a right to "freedom of action in space" and says it will "deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so."
The policy includes the right to "deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests."
Low Earth-orbit satellites have become indispensable for U.S. military communications, GPS navigation for smart bombs and troops, and for real-time surveillance. The Chinese test highlights the satellites' vulnerability.
"If we, for instance, got into a conflict over Taiwan, one of the first things they'd probably do would be to shoot down all of our lower Earth-orbit spy satellites, putting out our eyes," said John Pike of globalsecurity.org, a Web site that compiles information on worldwide security issues.
"The thing that is surprising and disturbing is that [the Chinese] have chosen this moment to demonstrate a military capability that can only be aimed at the United States," he said.
Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.