Space arms race: several great powers are interested in anti-satellite technology

28. juni 2022 kl. 15:56
Space arms race: several great powers are interested in anti-satellite technology
An artist’s rendition of an older Soviet anti-satellite system. Illustration: Wikimedia.
Missile attacks, lasers, kamikaze satellites, and a robotic arm. There are several technologies that can be used to destroy the satellites of hostile nations.
Artiklen er ældre end 30 dage

The world’s great powers are becoming increasingly interested in weapons that can be used against other nations’ satellites, according to a report from the American defence think tank Secure World Foundation.

“The existence of counterspace capabilities is not new, but the circumstances surrounding them are. Today there are increased incentives for development, and potential use, of offensive counterspace capabilities,” the Secure World Foundation concludes in the report.

The think tank also points out that the risk of serious consequences increases with the spread of anti-satellite technologies. Indeed, an increasingly large share of the international community and the global economy is dependent on satellites, which means that attacks that target them also pose a threat to civil society.

In addition to the major players such as the United States, Russia, and China, several smaller countries have also increased their military focus on space. This includes France, Australia, India, and to some extent South Korea.

Secrets in space

It makes sense that different countries have an interest in being able to attack satellites, says Karsten Marrup, head of the Air Warfare Centre at the Royal Danish Defence College.

Artiklen fortsætter efter annoncen

“Satellites are used as aid in military operations, either in form of images, communication, or positioning, among other things. Therefore, we are very dependent on the resources in space being able to be used as aid in operations,” he says.

India tested an anti-satellite missile in 2019. Illustration: Wikimedia/Ministry of Defence (GODL-India).

Anti-satellite technology

Missile attacks

Ingeniøren and several other media reported on Russian military having shot down one of their own old satellites with a Nudol missile last year to show that they had anti-missile capabilities. The satellite was at an altitude of 480 kilometres.

It is a relatively well-known method that the United States, India, and China have also used in the past.

However, the method involves the risk of creating space debris, which can hit other satellites. When the Russian satellite was shot down, it was blasted into 1500 pieces of debris, which are still flying around the Universe.

Kamikaze satellites

There are a number of Russian satellites that do not have an officially declared purpose. They have been observed changing orbit, which is usually not desirable in relation to the tasks of a satellite.

This opens up the risk that they are actually some kind of kamikaze satellites that could fly into other satellites and destroy them. Kamikaze satellites also carry the risk of creating space debris.

Robotic arm or jammer

The Chinese satellite SJ-17 is equipped with a robotic arm that can be used to destroy antennas or cameras on other satellites. That way, a satellite can be disabled without breaking it into a thousand pieces.

Satellites can also be equipped with jammers or other equipment that can be used to interfere with enemy satellites. For example, a chemical spray that can destroy an optical camera on a satellite.

Laser from Earth

In Russia, there is an extremely powerful laser that, according to the Russian armed forces, should be able to destroy satellites from Earth. Whether this is actually true is unclear, but the laser will at least be able to dazzle the optical sensor of a satellite and thus disable it.

The United States and China probably have a similar technology.

There are several technologies that can be used to attack a satellite. One known method is to shoot satellites down with a missile fired from the ground. This carries the disadvantage of satellite debris being sent into orbit and risking damaging other satellites—including the attacker’s own ones. Another method is to use satellites to attack other satellites. However, it is unclear what is actually out there.

“We have a good overview of what satellites are available. But we don’t know what’s on board them. Thus, we also don’t know if a satellite is equipped with a jammer or something else that can be used against other satellites,” Karsten Marrup says.

A privilege for great powers

Regardless of the method, waging war in space is a relatively complicated affair, and it is far from an option for all countries.

Artiklen fortsætter efter annoncen

“Launching a satellite, which should be able to do something with another satellite, is probably something few countries can do. The same applies to launching a missile into space,” Karsten Marrup says.

However, space operations are not the only way to influence an enemy’s satellites. Alternatively, one can also try to destroy the facilities on Earth that receive the signal from the satellites, and most countries have the capability to do that. A third possibility is to disrupt the signal itself with, for example, a jammer.

But even though space operations are more complicated, they also provide an advantage, which today is only available to the great powers.

“It’s almost impossible to defend satellites. Therefore, you have a better opportunity to influence your opponent if you have the capacity to hit them in space,” Karsten Marrup says.

Peaceful satellite swarm

Satellites have received a lot of publicity in connection with the war in Ukraine. This is especially true of the Starlink satellite network, which is used to facilitate internet for civilians using thousands of satellites orbiting relatively close to Earth.

As Ingeniøren has previously described, both China and Russia consider the American-owned Starlink a threat. It is difficult to put the satellite network out of operation because it consists of many thousands of satellites. Chinese researchers have argued that it is necessary to develop completely new technology that can be used against satellite swarms such as Starlink.

According to Karsten Marrup, however, the role Starlink plays in a defensive perspective is limited. This is because it is primarily a closed-loop communication system. Therefore, the Chinese concern should be seen in a different light.

“If you have a country that’s trying to prevent its people from gaining unrestricted access to the internet, then it’s clearly a problem if they can get internet through a receiver,” Karsten Marrup says.

Ingen kommentarer endnu.  Start debatten
Log ind eller opret en bruger for at deltage i debatten.