Space Wars - Coming to the Sky Near You?
A recent shift in U.S. military strategy and provocative actions by china threaten to ignite a new arms race in space. But would placing weapons in space be in anyone's national interest?
Credits: Illustration by Kenn Brown
Debris Damage Puncture to NASA's Solar Maximum Mission satellite resulted from a strike by tiny orbital debris.
When the Dust Won't Clear A military conflict in space could release
an enveloping cloud of debris that could damage or destroy satellites and crewed spacecraft that circle the globe. At orbital speeds, even minuscule objects could deeply penetrate a vehicle and wreck vital
equipment. The results of a
nuclear detonation in space could be even worse: the electromagnetic pulse and blast of charged particles would degrade all but
the most heavily shielded electronics
systems in orbit. Space war could push
the world economy back into the 1950s,
as communications, navigation, weather and other advanced satellite services would be rendered impractical for years to come.
Other Antisatellite Systems Most of the major military powers have probably experimented with ground-based radio-frequency systems that could disable the communications systems of satellites. Moreover, any country with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles could explode an atomic weapon in orbit, which would wreak havoc on most of the satellites and spacecraft there.
· Ground-based radio-frequency jammer: several tens of millions of dollars
· Nuclear weapon (for nations already possessing missiles with nuclear warheads): minimal
· Space bomber: $4 billion
The Pentagon’s Common Aero Vehicle/Hypersonic Technology Vehicle is not by definition a space weapon, but it would travel through space to strike terrestrial targets within an hour or two of being deployed. It could be released in orbit from a hypersonic space plane, then glide unpowered into the atmosphere before delivering conventional munitions onto surface targets. Advertisement
Co-orbital Satellites In one early design the resulting space debris was to be caught in a so-called flyswatter or large net.
Medium to high
· Space-based (kinetic-energy and other) interceptor: $5 billion–$19 billion
· Space-based radio-frequency jammer: not available
· Space mine: $100 million–$2 billion
Small antisatellite weapons, or micro satellites, could be lofted into the same orbits as their targets, where they could shadow or attach themselves to the targets. Once in place, such “space mines” could attack on command with explosives, small projectiles, radio frequency jamming systems or high powered microwave emitters—or they could simply smash into their targets.
· Ground-based kinetic-energy interceptor (adapted from existing U.S. ballistic missile defense program): $0–$3 billion
· Airborne kinetic-energy interceptor: $3 billion
Apart from jamming the radio communications or attacking ground-control stations, probably the simplest way to disable a satellite is to launch a missile-borne payload and crash it into an orbital target. Medium-range ballistic missiles fielded by about a dozen nations can directly reach low Earth orbit (between 100 and 2,000 kilometers, or about 60 to 1,250 miles, high). Small air-launched kill vehicles can also attack satellites in low Earth orbit. Assaulting a target in the much higher geostationary orbit (about 36,000 kilometers, or 22,000 miles, high) requires a more powerful launch booster, now possessed by eight countries and space consortia. But the real technical challenge is to guide and maneuver the kill vehicle precisely onto its mark.
*Estimates generally include development and procurement costs associated with building a system and operating it
for 20 years.
SOURCE: Arming the Heavens: A Preliminary Assessment of the Potential Cost and Cost-Effectiveness of Space-Based Weapons, by Steven Kosiak. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2007.
· Ground-based laser: $4 billion–$6 billion
· Space-based laser (low- to high-power capability): $3 billion–$60 billion
· Space-based microwave radiator: $200 million–$5 billion
Ground-based laser beams that are precision-guided onto their targets by adaptive optics (deformable mirrors that compensate for atmospheric distortions) could blind, disable or destroy satellites in low Earth orbit. Moderate-power lasers could “dazzle” optical-imaging satellites or damage their sensitive detectors. High-power lasers could “fry” satellites by damaging their electronics or even piercing their skin. Because fast-moving orbital targets lie mostly over Earth’s horizon at any one time, ground stations could also direct laser beams at airships or satellite-borne transfer mirrors, which could redirect the beams toward their targets. Advertisement Advertisement