Thinking Tech

Space warfare: the next step

Posting in Science

The U.S. has trouble defending its satellites.

SmartPlanet's Boonsri Dickinson today cited a story about the proliferation of space junk -- pieces of debris as large as school buses that orbit the Earth and endanger our satellites, which they vastly outnumber by 3,700 to 11.

According to one story, the Pentagon warned Congress a couple of months ago that space is becoming so congested, our commercial and military satellites and even the lives of our astronauts may be endangered. (Russian and American satellites actually collided last year)

Then there were stories last week about a rogue communications satellite that broke out of its orbit and came perilously close to another satellite, threatening to interfere with or end cable TV service in large parts of the U.S. (Nothing has happened so far).

But to Forrest Morgan at the Rand Corporation's Project Air Force, all of this is part of a larger problem. We can't defend our satellites, says Morgan, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, because we lack what the military calls "space situational awareness" -- the ability to know what's in front, behind, above or below our satellites, which are basically floating robots whose problems may take months to diagnose, if they can be diagnosed at all.

When something happens to a satellite, Morgan says, "We don’t know honestly whether something just failed, or if it's a natural event like charging from the Van Allen belts, or solar radiation, or a collision with debris..The first question is, 'Did somebody do this to us?'

"Until recently we didn't have the computational ability to do calculations on pieces of debris against all our satellites...There are thousands of objects in the satellite catalog that we track, and we're recalculating orbits every minute of every day as they evolve and change. It's a tremendous computational challenge."

A recent and dangerous addition to this mix is the appearance of unfriendly countries with nuclear capabilities and ballistic missile launchers that might try to gain an advantage by attacking American satellites or each other's. The Air Force is concerned enough that Morgan just finished a report for them (see below) outlining the first steps the U.S. could take to deter attacks and defend itself.

Not all satellites are equal targets -- global positioning systems and weather satellites are pretty safe because not much can be gained by knocking them out, and the privatization of space when it comes to war is both good and bad. Private satellites are less rugged and hardened than military satellites and may be easier to attack, but they're also likely to be used by several countries, which makes them politically sensitive.

In general, though, the more the U.S. relies on space -- for communications, terrestrial warfare, and even colonization -- the more dangerous a place it becomes.

Morgan wants a new national space policy saying that the U.S. will deter and punish space aggressors. Language about U.S. "control" of space, on the other hand, should be removed, since the U.S. doesn't control space anymore. Also, he says, much more research needs to be done -- something he hopes the Air Force will hire him to do.

Here's his report:

Rand Report

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure