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The Military China Space United States

Satellite Wars (ft.com) 98

schwit1 writes: Sixty years after the space race began, an orbital arms race is again in development. Military officials from the U.S., Europe and Asia confirm in private what the Kettering Group and other amateur stargazers have been watching publicly. Almost every country with strategically important satellite constellations and its own launch facilities is considering how to defend — and weaponize — their extraterrestrial assets. "I don't think there is a single G7 nation that isn't now looking at space security as one of its highest military priorities and areas of strategic concern," says one senior European intelligence official.

The U.S. is spending billions improving its defenses — primarily by building more capacity into its constellations and improving its tracking abilities. A $900m contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2014 to develop a radar system capable of tracking objects as small as baseballs in space in real time. But there are also hints that the U.S. may be looking to equip its satellites with active defenses and countermeasures of their own, such as jamming devices and the ability to evade interceptions. A purely offensive anti-satellite program is in fast development as well. High-energy weapons and maneuverable orbiters such as space planes all open the possibility of the U.S. being able to rapidly weaponize the domain beyond the atmosphere, should it feel the need to do so.

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Satellite Wars

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  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Saturday November 21, 2015 @04:50PM (#50977031) Homepage
    There's a serious risk that in low-Earth orbit if one has enough debris it could cause a cascade of destruction where debris hits satellites breaking them up into more debris which hits more satellites and so on. Such a cascade is called Kessler Syndrome https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] . If this happens it could render many orbits unusable for years. In that context, deliberately destroying satellites should maybe be considered a war crime since the potential for collateral damage impacting all of humanity is so severe.
    • Magnets... We'll vacuum the orbit with humungous magnets, and everything will accrete into a big ball of metal, probably worth salvaging.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        A lot of the materials used in manufacturing satellites aren't ferrous metals.

        • by drewsup ( 990717 )

          maybe if we used one of the mini black holes from the LHC, placed in orbit to hoover up all the debris, hey, what could possible go wrong :)

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Saturday November 21, 2015 @05:06PM (#50977095) Homepage

      If two major powers (the kinds that have satellite constellations) are fighting, we have a lot more to worry about than Kessler Syndrome. Like, say, global thermonuclear annihilation.

      Beam weapons are popular for their instant hit ability, but you have to have constant real-time tracking of the object (not simply a calculated trajectory), otherwise the tiniest vernier-thruster maneuver is enough to cause a miss. There's also a lot of potential countermeasures, both temporary (such as clouds of dust) and permanent (layered reflective foil skins).

      If you don't need an instant hit then probably the most effective way is nothing more than a rocket full of sand. It's basically buckshot times tens of millions. If you launch opposite the direction of Earth's rotation (costs a couple thousand more m/s delta-V) you can get impact velocities in the ballpark of 15000+ m/s. A 5mg grain of sand would carry an impact force of 560 joules. By comparison, a 100mph fastball, an expert karate punch, and a professional golfer drive are all 150J. A .22LR leaves the muzzle of a gun with an energy of 168 joules, a .380 pistol with 245J, and a 9mm with 467J (again, remember that these are muzzle velocities, bullets lose energy quickly with distance). A grain of sand a satellite (aka, something that fundamentally has to be built lightweight) at 15000 m/s is just going to punch right through it. Tens of millions of them... well, you can't miss.

      Also, small objects like grains of sand don't have long orbital lifespans. If you really wanted to you could fire them at a non-orbital trajectory as well. And they don't necessarily make what they hit explode, even if they punch right through it.

      • by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Saturday November 21, 2015 @05:22PM (#50977171) Homepage Journal

        "bullets lose energy quickly with distance" IN AN ATMOSPHERE. In a perfect vacuum, a bullet is going to retain just as much of it's initial energy as your buckets of sand will - pretty much all of it, for a long long time. And, like your particles of sand, the bullets will stay in orbit long enough to make a number of near misses, before finally hitting the target, or falling into the atmosphere.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Which would be a relevant comment if I was talking about some sort of imaginary alternative proposal where major powers planned to fire handguns at satellites, rather than what I was actually talking about, aka giving people a sense of the energies carried by grains of sand in orbit by comparing them to the energies of bullets fired on Earth.

          • Mmm-hmmm. It seems that you meant to explain something, but simply failed to enunciate it fully. Don't get butthurt because I added the phrase that you neglected to type into your narrative. It's pretty obvious that you and I both understand what you were saying, but even among rather well educated people, some don't.

          • I thought both posts were informative, but a rocket can carry a lot more sand grains than bullets. As for the energy, here [google.com.au] is what a fleck of paint did to the shuttle's four inch thick windscreen, they know it was paint because it was still embedded (three inched deep) in the hardened glass when they landed.
        • You, sir, are a fucktard.

        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          So monkey space wars in reality revolve around nothing more than denying all access to all possible orbits by filling them with orbiting debris as quickly as possible. Attempt to fight from space and the immediate sound and logical response is to deny access to space by filling all possible orbits with high speed micro projectiles and this could be done in hours and at a tiny fraction of the cost of attempting to fight from orbit. Why bother targeting anything, way to costly especially if you have signific

          • You sir, have summarized an awful lot of space-warfare understanding in a few sentences.

            A lot of quite intelligent writers have said much the same thing. War in space will be terribly, terribly expensive. Low tech will often trump high tech, just because there is so damned much low tech available, and it's easy to use.

            We see some of that right here on earth. We spend zillions of dollars on surveillance, but a handful of low-tech jihadists pulled off a fairly successful terror attack in Paris, using mostl

      • The problem with throwing sand for spacefaring nations is that it denies space to you too. Now, a nation just on the edge of becoming a spacefarer, such as a North Korea or Iran, might see value in denying space access to other more powerful nations. Getting a sand payload to just hit leo and fly apart seems to be a much simpler proposition than putting a long term functioning surveillance satellite or weapon into a predictable orbit.
        • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Saturday November 21, 2015 @06:54PM (#50977637) Homepage

          Even if sand was launched to LEO, it wouldn't have a long lifespan - the smaller the object, the higher its ratio of cross section to mass. And you don't have to launch into an orbital trajectory. And if you were really bothered, rather than launching sand one could launch grains of something that would sublimate in space.

          The sand itself doesn't pose a long-term debris threat. Even the act of disabling a satellite doesn't inherently do so - so long as it remains by and large a single piece. However, sand grains piercing into, say, a pressurized hydrazine tank and detonating the satellite into chunks of shrapnel of various sizes, that's a very different issue.

      • If two major powers (the kinds that have satellite constellations) are fighting, we have a lot more to worry about than Kessler Syndrome. Like, say, global thermonuclear annihilation.

        Replace Kessler Syndrome with bioweapons. Or firebombs. Whatever. Just because total annihilation is the worst possible outcome doesn't mean we should ignore other terrible outcomes.

    • No different than aviation. Aircraft are relatively easy to track and target. Opposing forces might tolerate each other's aircraft, until one side or the other decides that he is at greater risk because of the aircraft. So, he swats them out of the sky.

      Satellites will be no different. Whoever calculates that he gains the most by killing satellites is going to kill them.

      War crime? Maybe - but if I'm still alive next year, or next decade, to stand trial, then I've won. If I'm NOT still alive the - well,

    • by lgw ( 121541 )

      There's a serious risk that in low-Earth orbit if one has enough debris it could cause a cascade of destruction where debris hits satellites breaking them up into more debris which hits more satellites and so on. Such a cascade is called Kessler Syndrome https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ [wikipedia.org]... . If this happens it could render many orbits unusable for years.

      It would be a pain, but there is some drag in LEO and small debris won't last forever. Also, you almost never get a stable orbit from a random trajectory. If you actually start blowing shit up in space, most of the shrapnel is going to be in an obit that intersects the Earth, or dense atmosphere (or even possibly escapes, if you're blowing shit up real good).

      deliberately destroying satellites should maybe be considered a war crime

      The winners decide what's a war crime, and that mostly consists of "being needlessly dickish to the winner". It's rather fundamental that the group

    • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

      It would seem that not giving a fuck about future generations is quite a common outcome these days. I suspect that our descendants will have a number of reasons to be upset with us.

    • by XNormal ( 8617 )

      Just making a single important orbit permanently uninhabitable can be pretty devastating.

      Imagine a small satellite in a retrograde orbit close to the geosynchronous ring. The satellite is just a big hunting rifle cartridge full of buckshot with a tiny remote controlled gas canister that can turn it into a slowly expanding cloud of ruin. It will destroy everything in that orbit within twelve hours, hitting satellites at a relative speed of 6000 m/s.

      [shudder] I didn't know I was that evil.

  • Nothing new... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 21, 2015 @04:58PM (#50977059)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prowler_(satellite) [wikipedia.org]

    Prowler was an American reconnaissance satellite launched aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1990 in order to study Soviet satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The government of the United States has never acknowledged its existence, however it has been identified by amateur observers and through leaked information.

  • No defense (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Saturday November 21, 2015 @05:10PM (#50977111)
    If North Korea got a big nuke to work (the size tested that was considered a "fizzle", where an H-bomb went off only as an a-bomb, or something like that), they could do quite a bit of damage to a country by launching a large nuke over it. There is no missile defense that could shoot down a DPRK ICMB fired at South Africa via US trajectory, but as it passes over Kansas, in low outer space, it is detonated. The blast would EMP most, if not all of the contiguous US, as well as take out any satellites over it at the time (about $1T of satellites, give or take a few orders of magnitude).

    If there's no defense against that, then there's no real point to waste money on security that can't protect from a single obvious attack vector.

    And the apocolypse would be much like some of the bad movies with just 2 bombs from DPRK. What would the world look like if Europe and the US were hit? Russian and China not hit. With the sudden power shift, we'd go into a world war, infrastructure would collapse.

    The ironic thing is that weaponizing space would increase the chance of it happening. How? Because when a smaller nation has no options, and nothing to lose, they'll do the most damage they can. A nuke hidden in a container in LA harbor was the "old" worst case. But only because those coming up with the worst case have no imagination.
    • Um. A slightly more precise attack might be the threat model you're defending against.

    • Since the elite in North Korea seem to be addicted to expensive western goods, it seems like an unlikely scenario - even if it would somehow work (which I strongly doubt - old above-ground nuke tests didn't wreak too much widespread havoc with infrastructure, and we're much closer than this bomb would be).

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
        http://www.empcover.com/exampl... [empcover.com] There are thousands of references indicating that a space detonation would be much much more damaging than a ground blast.
        • by jafiwam ( 310805 )

          http://www.empcover.com/exampl... [empcover.com] There are thousands of references indicating that a space detonation would be much much more damaging than a ground blast.

          No.

          Physics and real world tests indicate just simply "No" even if the retardation of linking "proof" on a web site desperately trying to sell stuff mitigating the threat they are over-inflating.

        • First of all. To get EMP you need to detonate in the atmosphere. High up to be sure, but it is the interaction with the atmosphere that creates EMP. Too high and all you have is xrays and high energy particles, so only close stuff is affected. In space a mile wide killzone is in fact really small.

          Secondly EMP is *not* the end and is not even that bad (don't believe the movie bullshit). It is like the opposite of a geomagnetic storm. Large power infrastructure is mostly unaffected. Small electronics close
          • by AK Marc ( 707885 )

            Large power infrastructure is mostly unaffected.

            The descriptions indicate that long power lines radial to the blast will build up a voltage that should blow out everything at both ends. Large power infrastructure would be one of the most affected things.

            However even civilian electronics tends to be fairly well shielded and even on substrates that give quite a bit of resistance to the pulse these days.

            An unprogrammable car ECU would be much more resiliant than many would guess, but so much is (EE)PROM or otherwise deliberately suceptible to reprogramming. And many of those would be wiped clean and useless (until re-flashed) by an EMP. Computers everywhere would lost their BIOS, but have no other dam

    • If there's no defense against that, then there's no real point to waste money on security that can't protect from a single obvious attack vector.

      Don't be absurd. Russia, for example, has already made jamming our GPS systems a capability they have provided to others in proxy wars because GPS is a very useful tactical tool, and that way they get to test their GPS-jamming gear. Countries often attack each other in ways short of nuclear war. Just because you don't have a way of defending yourself from a nuke doesn't mean it's not worth having conventional arms.

  • The Earth is a prison. Get me out of here!
  • Will be our last war in space for a long long time.

    It will produce a mighty effective no-orbit zone, as we create a lot of new tiny satellite killers out of the debris from the pnce upon a time satellites. They'll eventuallu deorbit, some fairly soon, and some will be up there quite a long time.

    It won't even take that many things going kablooey to make wharever we wish impossible to get through. You don't have to hit the satellite, you don't even need to get near it. Just create the shrapnel and let ba

  • Good, I'm delighted they're finally doing that.
    1) serious research into living, working, traveling into space will only come when it's militarily significant

    2) even better if the primary sphere of conflict between great powers moves off earth; rather than a hair-trigger annihilatory balance here, better by far that the meaningful fight takes place out there and that whoever loses is so out-matched by the result that there's no point in fighting here on earth.

  • by barlevg ( 2111272 ) on Saturday November 21, 2015 @11:48PM (#50978725)
    Didn't we sign treaties with the USSR in like the '60s that agreed not to build orbital offensive platforms? Or did that just cover nukes? I guess I'm referring to the Outer Space Treaty. [wikipedia.org]
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Didn't we sign treaties with the USSR in like the '60s that agreed not to build orbital offensive platforms? Or did that just cover nukes? I guess I'm referring to the Outer Space Treaty. [wikipedia.org]

      Didn't the Russians sign a treaty to not invade Ukraine? Didn't the US (and Britain) sign a treaty with the Ukraine to help if they were ever invaded?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budapest_Memorandum_on_Security_Assurances

  • Both have massive ground based laser system designed to take out sats. In fact , ussr once threatened the shuttle by hitting it with a laser on the window. Purposely. Now, Russia AND china, have small sats about size of basketball that they are moving slowly by American sats. These are only useful as a first strike weapon. Basically, if we launch at attack, upon launching, we do not need the sats. OTOH, if Russia, and/or china, launch, then taking out sats first, give them a critical edge.
    • Both have massive ground based laser system designed to take out sats. In fact , ussr once threatened the shuttle by hitting it with a laser on the window. Purposely. Now, Russia AND china, have small sats about size of basketball that they are moving slowly by American sats. These are only useful as a first strike weapon. Basically, if we launch at attack, upon launching, we do not need the sats. OTOH, if Russia, and/or china, launch, then taking out sats first, give them a critical edge.

      Those are probably "inspector satellites". They listen as they pass by. Every computer chip or electronic circuit with AC components is a little antenna, emitting radio waves of frequencies in accord with, say, a CPU's clock speed.

      One of your 'basketballs' wouldn't need to have anything but a set of antennas to receive the RF leakage. It would just collect... Once it was done listening to exactly what is going on inside the US satellite's circuitry, it could just give a short puff to speed it up a bit a

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