Space is so hot right now. The past year has seen a flurry of activity from all over the globe with regards to space and orbital operations, and with the recent announcement of Russia’s plans to install 11 new military satellites by 2015, it looks like things won’t be slowing down any time soon. Besides SpaceX’s first commercial satellite, a milestone in itself, this year saw the launch of the US government’s newest spy satellite, complete with creepy mission badge, and the launch of India’s first defense satellite and their new Mars Orbiter. The last two years have seen more countries put their first satellites into space than any other two years combined. Right now there are more than 1071 operational satellites in Earth’s orbit, and more stuff tends to mean more junk as well, which has military experts and orbit otakus quaking in their moon shoes. On July 20th, the Chinese government launched three new satellites which many observers believe are the next stage in China’s growing ASAT, or Anti-Satellite, capabilities. Satellites form the backbone of our most valuable communication and signal relay networks, yet are suspended completely defenseless in orbit. In the future the destruction of key satellites, as well as a barrage of cyber-attacks, could act as the first salvos in a major conflict between nations. And while this may seem like forced moves from a strategic viewpoint, a chaotic dismantling of our orbital infrastructure could have a lasting impact measured in decades, potentially leaving a legacy more destructive than any atom bomb.
Everything about the July 20th launch of the Shiyan-7 (Experiment-7), Chuangxin-3 (Innovation-3) and Shijian-15 (Practice-15) satellites seemed normal until August 16th, when the Shiyan-7 made an oribtal adjustment of 93 miles, lowering itself to rendezvous with the Chuangxin-3. No big deal, observers thought, maybe they’re just testing space station docking techniques. That is until it adjusted its orbit again, aligning with a 2005 launched Shijian-7 satellite by just a few hundred meters. This is incredibly close in space terms and highly unusual. That was when it was revealed the Shiyan-7 actually contained a robotic manipulator arm able to latch onto other satellites. This blew the speculation wide open, and many were adamant that it was a test of a new weapon, one capable of ripping apart helpless satellites in orbit. In reality it may not be so expressly sinister, with the satellite performing a dual-purpose role of both inspection/maintenance and military asset if need be. The Shiyan-7 is not the first satellite to come equipped with a robotic arm, but the Chinese government has recognizably stepped up its ASAT game in the last few years and could simply be exploring all their options.
After two failed ASAT missile launches 2005 and 2006, the Chinese government successfully destroyed their Fengyun-1C polar orbit satellite in 2007, sparking controversy over the creation of orbital debris and the militarization of space. This was followed by a missile defense test in 2010 and another satellite interceptor test in 2013. These are no easy tasks, as the kind of technology required to both reach high orbit and intercept fast moving objects there requires sophisticated guidance and control systems, something which the Chinese government is purposefully showing off to the world. Today, there are schools of thought within the Chinese military that closely follow the Revolution in Military Affairs theory, and which sees space warfare as unavoidable. The doctrinal view is one that searches for an “Assassin’s Mace“, a system or weapon which can provide a cost effective edge over a more powerful military adversary. A Chinese white paper released in 2006, entitled China’s Space Activities in 2006, revealed how the Communist Party sees space as key to becoming and maintaining a global military and economic power, while PLA doctrine sees controlling space as the “high ground” in any future conflict. On the flip side, the Chinese government was an early advocate for the demilitarization of space, and sought treaties to that effect. A post-9/11 Bush administration balked at the idea, with a commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld stating, “the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.” This was later followed by the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001.
Not that the United States was any stranger to ASAT capabilities during or after the Chinese own efforts. Operation Burnt Frost, where the US shot down a malfunctioning recnassiance satellite, was seen as a response to the 2007 ASAT test. And prior to 2007, the last successful ASAT test was completed by the US in 1986, with the ASM-135 ASAT multistage missile launched from the payload of an F-15 Eagle. ASAT capabilities developed alongside ballistic missile defense during the Cold War, with the rocketry and guidance needed to intercept objects in orbit quickly developing over a short period of time. Much of this culminated in the Reagen-era Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars” system, which sought to use lasers or non-nuclear kinetic warheads to intercept objects in orbit as they flew to their target. Defenses like the Brilliant Pebbles satellites could have been adapted to knock out other satellites just as easily as ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union also developed its own ASAT program, developing killer interceptor satellites under their Istrebitel Sputnik program as early as the 1960s, and later the Naryad prototypes in the 1980s, but neither fully panned out as expected. Maybe feeling a bit left behind by their American and Chinese counter-parts, Russia under Vladimir Putin officially restarted its ASAT program in 2009, and in 2010 revealed that they were developing a “fundamentally new weapon that can destroy potential targets in space”. Whether this is referencing their Sokol Eshelon laser program, which was recently reinstated, remains to be seen.
But all these various methods of blowing up hunks of metal in space all fall victim to the same problem: Newton’s First Law of Motion. Any object blown up or ruptured in space creates debris which is shot out in all directions at dangerous velocities. Instead of being hurtled out into void, this debris gets caught in the Earth’s gravitational pull and ends up spinning around the planet, never slowing down until it hits the upper atmosphere and burns up. This process can take a long time, depending on how high of an orbit the debris originated in, and some space debris from the early sixties is still spinning around the planet. The events of this year’s box office hit Gravity are set in motion by a speculative Russian ASAT test, where one explosion creates a chain reaction and sends a cloud of shrapnel speeding around the planet. The 2007 destruction of the Fengyun-1C satellite produced 2,317 pieces of traceable debris and over 150,000 debris particles, one of which later collided with and destroyed a Russian retroreflector satellite. Destruction of space assets on a large scale, say in a conflict between major nation states, could lead to a situation known as the Kessler Syndrome, where dead debris chokes our orbit and makes launching new space assets incredibly difficult. Clean-up would be no easy task, and though there has been some thought put towards the task, such as NASA’s Laser Broom concept, nothing practical as come to fruition. The Earth could be encased in its own junk for decades as we wait for the debris to naturally fall and burn up in the atmosphere. Larger chunks that didn’t break up would pose a constant threat to population centers where they might land. Nations today are careful to destroy assets in a safe manner, and the US has set up what is known as a Graveyard Orbit where dying satellites can be safely decommissioned, but such forethought may not be considered in the heat of battle. And all that is to say nothing of countries intentionally de-orbiting satellites in last ditch suckerpunch efforts.
Path of the debris from the Fengyun-1C satellite over time. (Source)
But this is of course a nightmare scenario, a modern day version of the nuclear winter which haunted our Cold War predecessors. Still, ASAT development continues, alongside cyber-warfare , as one of the next theaters of geopolitical conflict. Though either side denies it, a contest of one-up-manship could lead us into a new sort of space race, one that doesn’t produce as peaceful an ending as before. As the Chinese have already identified, space is the new high ground, and the big kids have never been one to pass up a game of King of the Hill.
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