US Air Force Increases Investment in Satellite Protection Technology

[/caption]What does the US, Russia and China have in common? Yes, they’ve all sent a man into space and successfully carried out spacewalks using home-made spaceships, but they have another space-based attribute in common. They are all capable of shooting down satellites in Earth orbit. What’s more, all have proven it. So, we know for a fact that the technology is out there, and although it is still an extremely hard task, satellites are becoming more and more vulnerable to attack from the ground. Experts now believe that anti-satellite technology is within reach of rogue states and some well-funded terrorist groups, using nothing more than a medium range missile, a college-level team of individuals and some crude, yet effective, technology.

The US Air Force is now highlighting their concern by investing $29 million in companies to develop space-based warning and protection systems. The “star wars” threat is still out there

In February, the warship USS Lake Erie fired a modified Standard Missile-3 at a defunct spy satellite called USA 193. The mission was a success, anti-satellite warhead slamming into the fast-moving target. BBC Washington correspondent Jonathan Beale likened the satellite shoot-down to “trying to fire a missile through the eye of a needle.” Although difficult, the US had proven they had the technology to destroy targets in Earth orbit from the ground. This demonstration of US capabilities was widely interpreted as a response to China’s unannounced weather satellite intercept the previous year. However, the US military maintain action needed to be taken as the dead spy satellite could re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, carrying substantial quantities of toxic hydrazine fuel with it.

Regardless of the reasons for a satellite shoot-down, China and the US have shown their abilities when destroying a small target, travelling at high speed in Earth orbit. So now the concern is: what if a well-funded terrorist group or rogue state develop even the crudest anti-satellite technology? According to US military experts some serious damage can be done to military satellites, global positioning systems, weather satellites and even satellite TV systems should they be targeted. All that is needed is a medium-range missile carrying some kind of crude warhead; as long as the warhead collides with, or disrupts the satellite, the satellite will be useless. Although it is not believed there are any current plans by terrorist groups, the US Air Force wants to ensure the future safety of US interests in Earth orbit.

This signifies more investment in the Self-Awareness Space Situations Awareness (SASSA) program, hoping to develop and demonstrate an automated early warning system for space vehicles by 2010. The Air Force has provided $29 million in funds to companies such as Assurance Technologies and Lockheed Martin Space Systems to begin designing the hardware and software that will offer threat and hazard detection, assessment and notification.

The goal is to construct a payload that will identify threats to satellites and protect them from ground-based missile and laser threats.

Concern is growing for the wider use of anti-satellite weapons, so the US Air Force want to be one step ahead of any future threat to US interests orbiting the planet.

Source: Network World

Cosmonaut Photographed South Ossetia From ISS Shortly After Russian Invasion

During a Russian weather observation campaign, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko took photographs above the South Ossetia region of Georgia soon after the Russian military action in the area on August 9th. According to NASA’s ISS Daily Report, Kononenko was monitoring the “after-effects of border conflict operations in the Caucasus” and his orders from Moscow instructed him to carry out this task for humanitarian reasons. Some sources are suspicious of this possible orbital reconnaissance opportunity, citing that the 1998 ISS international agreement enforces the rule that the space station can only be used for civilian activities. However, NASA has stated that the Russian space agency Roscosmos admitted to the photography request, saying that the images were required to monitor serious water management issues and not intended for military purposes…

This new article to surface in the Aviation Week website refers to a paragraph in the August 9th entry of the International Space Station Daily Reports:

Also working from the discretionary task list, Oleg Kononenko conducted another session of the Russian GFI-8 “Uragan” (hurricane) earth-imaging program, using the D2X digital camera with the F800 telephoto lens and the HVR-Z1J SONY video camera. [Uplinked target areas were glaciers on the north slope of the main Caucasus Ridge, the Dombai region, after-effects of border conflict operations in the Caucasus, the Kalmyk steppe, the main stem stream of the Volga river (west-most) from Astrakhan to Caspian Sea, a series of overlapping shots of the Ob and Bia river valleys (Bia river head stream, Teletsk lake, confluence of Katun and Bia rivers form Ob river), general photography of Carpathian region on both sides of track and of the river valleys in Moldova, gulley and ravine topography of Central Russia up to Volga river, steppe on the left shore of Volga river to the south of Saratov including Y. A. Gagarin’s landing site in nadir, petroleum deposits along both shores of the Ural river and oil drilling fields, former Soviet Army fire ranges in Germany and coal pits after reclamation, scenic shots of Central America and Caribbean basin for educational purposes, and the Gulf Stream.] – ISS Daily Report (Aug. 9th) (emphasis added)

Naturally, only two days after the Russian infringement into the troubled region of Georgia, such a photography campaign from orbit could be seen as a prime opportunity for Russia to attain large-scale imagery for military gain. The AW article even goes as far as outlining the original treaty signed by Russia and the USA stating that the ISS cannot be used for any other reason other than civilian purposes. If Russia did indeed use the ISS for military gain, they would violate the January 29th 1998 ISS cooperation agreement which states (in Article 14), “The Space Station together with its additions of evolutionary capability will remain a civil station, and its operation and utilization will be for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law.”

In response to the concerns raised by the AW reporter, a NASA spokesman replied, “Roscosmos informed us that the pictures were requested to support potential humanitarian activities in the area, including serious water resource management issues.” He also added that there was no need for the matter to be investigated further.

Before hostilities broke out in Georgia, Russian news reported that there were water shortages around the main city of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia due to diversions by Georgian villagers to the south. When the fighting started international aid organizations did struggle to distribute water to the affected area. Besides, many would argue that the Russian military wouldn’t need military reconnaissance from orbit as Russian forces dominated the region anyway.

I’m also curious just how much detail could really be picked out by using a digital camera and 800mm telephoto lens from 330 km (180 miles) high. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be that much use for military purposes…

Sources: NASA, Aviation Week

Could Conflict in Georgia Block US Access to the Space Station?

The conflict between Georgia and Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia may have huge consequences for NASA’s ability to send astronauts to the International Space Station in the future. The US has criticised the Russian military action, prompting concerns for the future NASA use of the Russian Soyuz space vehicle. This comes at a particularly critical time, as concerns were already high due to the Shuttle decommissioning in 2010. The US is only allowed to use Soyuz up until 2011 as that is when the exemption from the Iran Non-Proliferation Act runs out. If US-Russian relations turn even more sour, an extension to the exemption may not be allowed, freezing the US out of any involvement with routine manned access into space. US Senator Bill Nelson (Democrat), an outspoken critic of the government’s funding of the US space program, has brought these concerns to light blaming the Bush administration for an over reliance on Russia for future space access…

The Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000 was signed by US Congress as a means to encourage Russian involvement in the nuclear ambitions of Iran to cease. The Act restricts US funding to Russia by limiting all purchasing of technology and services relating to the Space Station. A waiver was granted to NASA so the US could make use of the Russian Soyuz space vehicle, and it was hoped that the waiver would be renewed in 2011 so the US could still have manned access to space during the “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and Constellation completion. However, the lawmakers in Congress will be very reluctant to renew the waiver if relations between the US and Russia degrade, throwing NASA into a very difficult situation once the Shuttle is mothballed. This concern has been amplified since the military action in the disputed region of South Ossetia in Georgia, a US ally.

Regardless of whether the waiver gets renewed, Senator Nelson is deeply suspicious of Russia’s intentions when NASA will need to take Soyuz flights after 2010. Deteriorating US-Russia politics may result in “Russia denying us rides or charging exorbitant amounts for them,” he said on Tuesday. In response to the problem with the renewing of the Act waiver in light of the recent Georgia violence, he stated:

It was a tough sell before [to Congress], but it was doable simply because we didn’t have a choice. We don’t want to deny ourselves access to the space station, the very place we have built and paid. It’s going to be a tougher sell now unless there are critical developments during the next 48 to 72 hours.” – US Sen. Bill Nelson

So have there been any critical developments in Georgia? Today, US Defence Chief Robert Gates warned that relations between the US and Russia will be damaged “for years” if Russia does not step down from aggressive operations in the region. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying the rebelling Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions will never integrate back under Georgian rule. He also stated that the military has started to hand back the Georgian town of Gori, although a military presence will remain. So no, although the brunt of the military action by Russia appears to have calmed, there will still be huge pressure on the region and innocent civilians will be caught in the middle for some time to come.

The Polish missile system would be similar to the systems in California and Alaska (BBC News)
The Polish missile system would be similar to the systems in California and Alaska (BBC News)

As if to make matters worse the US and Poland have just signed a defence deal, hosting part of the US missile shield to protect against rogue states launching missiles into Europe and the US. Russia has outright rejected the US proposal, saying that a US controlled system near its border will destabilize the military balance in the region. Today’s signing will only contribute to the tension between the two nations.

For further details on the US-Poland missile plans, see Poland “agrees” to host controversial US missile defence system.

Nelson strongly believes the Iran Non-Proliferation Act waiver is “dead on arrival. Nobody thinks it’s going to happen, and the reality is there is no back-up plan for the space station.” Many critics believe the Act will have a self-defeating effect as it will stop NASA from accessing the $100 billion ISS investment. “There will be consequences not just for Russia but for the U.S. too,” Nelson added.

Sources: Florida Today, Orlando Sentinel, BBC

The Chinese “Weather Manipulation Missile” Olympics

One thing is for certain, the Chinese cannot be accused of being subtle when it comes to insuring good weather for the biggest party on Earth. Sounding like a military operation, the Chinese government authorized the use of 1,104 cloud seeding missile launches from 4:00-11:39pm on Friday night to remove the threat of rain ahead of the 29th Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing. This was the first time the weather manipulation technique was used during any Olympic event in the history of the games. This summer period can be a very wet season for Beijing and officials have been concerned their moment of huge national pride would be a wash-out. But it would appear the 21 rain dispersal launch sites kept nature at bay and made sure the celebration fireworks didn’t get soggy…

Although cloud seeding remains a hugely controversial practice, both China and Russia are large-scale advocates of various delivery systems. In June, it was reported that during a Russian Air Force cloud seeding operation, a chunk of cement fell from the sky, making a hole in someone’s roof. Although this incident was quite entertaining (not, however, to the owner who vowed to sue the Kremlin), there are some very big local climate concerns associated with cloud seeding. Scientists have pointed out that weather manipulation can amplify drought conditions in one area or increase the risk of floods in another. It is an unpredictable practice at best, and often considered to be highly unreliable. However, the Chinese and Russian governments continue to seed clouds, in an attempt to disperse rain ahead of public holidays and events.

Chinese meteorologists claim that the weather manipulation rockets were highly effective ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday, keeping the skies clear and audience dry inside the main Olympic National Stadium (a.k.a. “The Birds Nest”).

We fired a total of 1,104 rain dispersal rockets from 21 sites in the city between 4 p.m. and 11:39 p.m. on Friday, which successfully intercepted a stretch of rain belt from moving towards the stadium” – Guo Hu, Beijing Municipal Meteorological Bureau (BMB).

Cloud seeding station - looks like an anti-aircraft gun (China Photos/Getty)
Cloud seeding station - An alternate use for an anti-aircraft gun (China Photos/Getty)

According to Xinhua news, Chinese meteorologists decided cloud seeding was the only option as the humidity was rising toward 90% and rain clouds had been tracked since 7:20am approaching the Chinese capital city. Under these conditions, scientists felt for certain rain would pour over the opening ceremony. “Under such a weather condition, a small bubble in the rain cloud would have triggered rainfall, let alone a lightening,” said Guo, presumably indicating that any slight instability in the atmosphere may have caused a storm.

Sounding more like a terror threat than a rain warning, the Beijing Municipal Meteorological Bureau issued a “Yellow Alert” (the third highest) for a thunderstorm at 9:35pm, with heavy rain hitting downtown Beijing soon after. According to officials, at 10:42pm, the clouds had been dispersed and the opening ceremony remained storm-free. They also stated that other areas surrounding Beijing recorded heavy rain, possibly indicating that the focused cloud seeding campaign worked.

Source: Xinhua

Photographer Images Satellites That Do Not Exist

Trevor Paglen is an astrophotographer with a difference… he takes photos of satellites that are not there. Officially “not there“, anyway. He spends many nights surveying the skies, waiting for classified spy satellites to pass overhead. When one appears, after researching what is actually out there (which is a hard task, these things are not meant to be discovered!) he captures it with his hi-tech astronomical spy satellite-catching equipment. His work makes for captivating (if unnerving) reading. Apart from capturing 189 “ghost” satellites in orbit, he’s turned his stargazing lenses to Earth and taken a peek into the top secret world of “black ops”…

In a new art show at the University of California, Berkley (link down at time of writing), it could be any regular astrophotography exhibit. But this one called “The Other Night Sky” is very different. The photographer is Trevor Paglen and he has an interesting pastime; he takes pictures of things the US government wants to keep secret. Firstly, Paglen’s night sky imagery documents 189 US spy satellites he has painstakingly tracked down and captured in a camera shutter to be displayed for public viewing. It’s one thing to sit and wait for the International Space Station to pass overhead (after following its orbit on Google Earth) and take a picture that looks better than a dim blur (much like my attempt at astrophotography!), but it’s quite another thing to do the research on something that shouldn’t exist, predict where the satellite might appear and capture its trail as crisply as Paglen does.

But how does he do this? Firstly, he uses spy satellite data compiled by renowned amateur astronomer Ted Molczan to predict when one of these classified satellites will pass through the night sky. He then sets his equipment up in the region of sky where he hopes the small dot may pass through. Using a computer controlled motor mounted telescope and webcam he focuses on a star and makes sure the shot is correctly composed. Using another, more powerful telescope and camera, he focuses on the same region. When the predicted satellite passes through the sky, he’s able to take a range of shots using the webcam-mount and powerful telescope. He’s collected 1500 images of pictures taken in this way, documenting the 189 satellites on different campaigns.

So far so good. His work may seem a little disconcerting at this point (after all, these are top secret satellites he’s spying on), but he draws a parallel between what he is doing with Galileo’s observations of Jupiter. “What would it mean to find these secret moons in orbit around the earth in the same way that Galileo found these moons that shouldn’t exist in orbit around Jupiter?” Paglen says. What he means is that the Catholic Church in Galileo Galilee’s time forbade any natural satellite to orbit around the gas giant; Galileo was observing something that shouldn’t exist. Paglen appears to be taking an anti-establishment stance himself by observing satellites orbiting the Earth that the establishment denies knowledge of. It’s an interesting concept.

But we haven’t touched on the really sensitive stuff yet. He uses his high-powered optics to look deep into locations on the ground, “restricted areas” within the US; particularly secret military facilities in the Nevada Desert. He uses a method known as “limit-telephotography” applying equipment more commonly used to studying the cosmos. Limit-telephotography is a way of photographing landscapes that cannot be viewed unaided, obviously a useful way of looking deep into restricted areas if there’s a structure in your line of site but obscured by atmospheric aberrations (such as heat haze). When using similar equipment to view distant galaxies, there’s only about 5 miles of obscuring atmosphere to look through, with limit-telephotography there might be over 40 miles of atmosphere to look through.

Whilst Paglen may be taking pictures of top secret locations, and his intent is highly political (he spends a lot of time trying to bring to light various “black operations” throughout the US), most of his imagery probably wouldn’t be too much of a concern to government agencies, but it is a rare peek into a dark world most of us will never fully comprehend…

Source: Wired

US Wants to Defend Satellites From Laser Attack

So what do you do if someone fires a powerful laser at your satellite? The optics on the satellite will probably be fried, so you couldn’t see who did it. The US military appears to be concerned that this possibility may become a reality. As the US depends more and more on space for communications, GPS and military applications, the US government has announced the development of a defence method intended to detect a ground-based laser attack on a satellite, and pin point the laser’s location. However, some experts have warned against taking this kind of action as there is little evidence other nations are developing anti-satellite laser technology. Also, it may be defence system but it could push further development of the militarization of space…

Satellites can be a pretty vulnerable technology. As showcased by both China and the US in the last year, satellites are well within the scope for anti-satellite missiles. Although both nations contest that the satellite shoot downs were not intended to demonstrate their military prowess in space, many observers have become concerned about the acceleration of research into space weaponry. Pentagon officials have even voiced their concern that their spy satellites may fall fowl of “illumination” by Chinese ground-based lasers. There is however little evidence that China is pursuing this technology.

Even so, the US Air Force has called on contractors to develop a system that will “sense and attribute” a laser attack. This means the technology must have the ability to sense laser emission aimed at a satellite and attribute it to a location on the surface. This development program has become known as Self Awareness/Space Situation Awareness (SASSA). The SASSA system will need to be sensitive to a wide range of laser and radio wavelengths, but the tough part will be to accurately pin-point where the laser is being fired from.

This month, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing have presented their proposals for the SASSA system and the Air Force hopes to fly the winning bid on board an experimental satellite (TacSat-5) in 2011.

Although this is a defensive measure, military analysts are worried that the SASSA could increase tensions around the use of space weapons. As Rob Hewson, analyst and editor for Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, points out, “It’s a defensive step but one that assumes an attack, it is a baby step in the preparation for fighting in space.”

Source: New Scientist Tech

So, What Does an Anti-Satellite Weapon Actually Look Like?


In February, the Universe Today followed the sad tale about a dead US satellite called US-193, lifelessly floating around in orbit, possibly threatening the world by dumping hazardous fuel onto a city somewhere. This was the perfect time for the US Navy to launch their Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) into space, smashing US-193 to tiny bits. It worked and it worked well.

Although we’ve seen loads of pictures of the rocket being launched, and the pinpoint accuracy it accomplished by detonating in low Earth orbit, but what technology goes into the actual warhead that takes out the satellite? Well, in an article just published, images of an older generation “Kinetic Energy” anti-satellite weapon are on display. And to be honest, it doesn’t look that scary…

There’s more than one way to kill a satellite. You can make it self destruct by firing its thrusters, sending it in a deadly descent through the atmosphere. But say if you don’t have communication with the craft? You could capture it in orbit using a robotic or manned spaceship. But this would be prohibitively expensive and dangerous. You could simply shoot it down… now this idea (although far from being “simple”) is the most popular and effective method to get rid of a satellite from orbit.

The anti-satellite (ASAT) idea has been around since the Cold War, as far back as the 1960’s, but very little information is available. In fact, according to Dwayne Day’s article in The Space Review on the 31st March, since the Cold War nobody has been bothered to write much about American ASAT technology development, policy, and doctrine. It is unclear if this is down to the military being (understandably) secretive, or whether people simply lost interest in the “Star Wars” program proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

A Lockheed KE-ASAT mock-up (credit: Dwayne Day)

But there are some clues as to the US anti-satellite capabilities back in the 1990’s, namely a cool-looking mock-up of one of Lockheed’s proposals for a kinetic energy anti-satellite warhead (or KE-ASAT, pictured left), the author discovered at the Aerospace Legacy Foundation’s offices located at the former North American Aviation Downey factory. The owner, a Dr. Jim Busby showed off a low fidelity mock-up of a Lockheed KE-ASAT, which he acquired in the early 1990s, when a previous owner discarded it.

The rear of the KE-ASAT (credit: Dwayne Day)

It’s a strange-looking device, resembling a mini-spaceship capsule (although, from the images and description, it is unclear how big it is) that would have sat on top of a rocket booster to send it from the ground and into space to hit its satellite target. This type of anti-satellite does not explode on impact; it relies on huge velocities and a high mass to generate enough kinetic energy to destroy the target on impact.

Some variations on this theme may have included a Kevlar “fly swatter” that would expand on impact, making it easier to hit the satellite and destroy it.

The side of the KE-ASAT (credit: Dwayne Day)

It is obvious from the images that the mass of the warhead is packed in the red cone at the front of the weapon; the infrared heat-seeker targeting system would also be housed there. There is also a main thruster (that would fire to life once the rocket boosters had carried it into space), and attitude controls at the rear to guide the high velocity projectile to its target. A similar method was used by the February 20th US spy satellite intercept, so the proposed technology this KE-ASAT is built on is not far from the current method employed by the US Navy.

Alas, the KE-ASAT never made it to the production line as Lockheed’s bid for use in an anti-satellite program was beaten by the Rockwell company in July 1990, the US Army opted for a far different-looking design, not dissimilar to the ASAT used today. Personally I think the Lockheed concept looked better, but would have been very scary, causing a huge mess

Source: The Space Review

A Space War would be a Seriously Messy Business


What if there was a Pearl Harbour-like, pre-emptive strike against orbiting satellites? What if our quarrels on the ground spill into space? This is no longer a storyline for the next sci-fi movie, early warning systems are currently being developed to defend satellites, low Earth orbit satellites are being quickly and accurately shot down by the US and China, plus satellite technology is becoming more and more valuable as a strategic target. Like all wars there is a losing side, but in the event of a war in space, we’ll all be losers.

Its one thing watching a space battle in a sci-fi movie, it’s quite another to see it happen in reality. The critical thing about blowing stuff up in space is it produces a lot of mess and will leave a nasty legacy for future generations. Space debris is becoming a serious problem and should there be some form of orbital war, the debris produced may render space impassable.

As satellite technology becomes more and more important for communication and navigation, should a pre-emptive attack by an aggressive state be carried out, blowing up satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) will become a priority. Imagine if a nation lost its ability to communicate with its armed forces around the globe, or if strategic missiles were suddenly rendered useless, the state being attacked will be electronically blinded.

In an article posted on The Space Review by Taylor Dinerman, some important factors are addressed. Significantly, should there be a large-scale attack by a rogue nation on a US LEO satellite network; the disruption caused to military communications could be catastrophic. Indeed, the disruption caused to such a satellite network may be desirable enough for small nations to pursue anti-satellite technology.

But what if the worst does happen and satellites become the primary targets for “hot” wars down here on Earth? What can be done to reduce the amount of debris produced? After all, cutting down on space debris is an international concern, having a “scorched earth” policy in space would ultimately be self-defeating. Dinerman examines some possible solutions:

  • Develop highly destructive anti-satellite missiles. If the missiles carry warheads of sufficient destructive energy, satellites may be completely pulverized, rendering the mass of the orbiter into harmless bits of dust.
  • Build an early warning system and highly manoeuvrable military-design satellites. Expensive, in money and fuel, but worth it should there be a space war.

Regardless of whether there will be a future space battle in Earth orbit, it is quickly becoming the responsibility of the military and private companies of all nations to design and build critical satellites with some built-in ability to protect themselves from attack. And this isn’t only to maintain communications or guide ballistic missiles to targets; it is to safeguard mankind’s ability to access space by reducing the risk posed by the ever increasing population of space debris currently trapped in orbit.

Should the worst happen, and the space-ways become so heavily congested with debris, at least you’ll be able to track it with Google Earth!

Source: The Space Review: “Messy battlefields” by Taylor Dinerman

Preventing Pearl Harbor in Space


Both China and the United States have recently demonstrated their ability to reach out and destroy satellites from the ground. Since the modern military depends so much on satellites for communications and reconnaissance, you can imagine they’re juicy targets in future conflicts. Aviation Week has an interesting article about the US Air Force’s strategy to defend against this.

So here’s the nightmare scenario. One country planning to invade another would launch a simultaneous attack against a constellation of satellites. If the attacker timed things right, and launched enough anti-satellite missiles, the defender would be rendered blind almost instantaneously.

One moment, the Pentagon is watching the Earth from multiple vantage points, coordinating the movement of troops, and a few minutes later… nothing. A 2001 Space Commission called this scenario, “Pearl Harbor in Space”.

The Pentagon is working on a strategy they hope will prevent against this sneak satellite attack, and they hope to have it online by 2011. The new system, called Rapid Attack Identification Detection Reporting System (Raidrs), would upgrade the capabilities of the satellites, as well as put in a ground-based monitoring system. As missiles are launched towards satellites, commanders would have enough warning to move the targeted bird out of the way.

If the attack came today, the US military would know they were being targeted, but they wouldn’t necessarily know where, or from who. And they’d have no way to prevent satellites from being shot down. But within a few years, that should change, with individual satellites able to be defend themselves, and help pinpoint the attacker.

As we move ever forward into the space age, we bring our military with us. Although it would be wonderful to have space without weapons, I can’t imagine why the world’s military wouldn’t want to come along into the final frontier. Space is the ultimate high-ground, and they’ll do everything to defend it. Just imagine how many science probes all this military spending would buy.

Anyway, check out the Aviation Week article, and get more details about the program itself.