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.