April 25, 2014. We are inextricably linked to hundreds of spacecraft racing around our planet. But near-Earth space is reaching a saturation point — a detail driven home in James Clay Moltz’s new space history — Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space. And the idea that such orbital competition could potentially trigger a global conflict is one of the book’s major themes.
In “Crowded Orbits,” Moltz — an expert on space policy and national security issues — covers the civil, military and commercial space sectors, but also includes chapters on diplomatic space initiatives and future trends. Forbes.com turned to the author, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, to learn more.
Is space warfare in our future?
If one tracks current trends and the increasing rate of military spending on space by a variety of countries, one has to worry. These militaries are going to have to engage in mutual restraint if conflict is going to be avoided.
We managed to do so during the Cold War through U.S.-Soviet non-interference pledges, ongoing talks, and a shared belief that satellite security was critical to nuclear stability and arms control. It is less clear that such restraint will prevail in the 21st century. This decade nearly a dozen countries will have the ability to test space weapons and/or attack enemy spacecraft.
You argue that warfare in earth orbit would create totally uncontrolled projectiles traveling 17,000 mph. What would be the immediate effects?
China’s 2007 ASAT (anti-satellite weapons) test created over 3,000 pieces of large orbital debris (larger than 4 inches in diameter), which will now continue to hurtle around the Earth at orbital speeds (over 17,000 mph) for some 40 or more years; until they finally re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.
Any piece of this debris field could hit a satellite or, worse, a manned spacecraft and cause serious damage, depressurization, and death. A space war involving even just a dozen similar attacks on satellites would create such a large field of hazardous debris that it could render low-Earth orbit too dangerous for astronauts or high-value spacecraft —making near-Earth space essentially unusable.
Does Iran or North Korea possess the technology for space-to-space warfare?
Not yet. The challenge will be whether existing space-faring countries can convince newly-emerging space actors to behave responsibly. One possible incentive is that in space, destructive acts — such as the release of orbital debris from weapons tests — harm everyone in orbit. So, China, Russia, and other developed space powers share an interest in ensuring safe access to space.
What effect has the 1967 Outer Space Treaty had on deterring an all out arms race in space?
The Outer Space Treaty and other agreements have created strong norms of restraint. A current effort—started by the European Union—to create an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities would enhance cooperation in space situational awareness and traffic control; encourage non-interference and debris mitigation; and require yearly consultations among signatories on space security issues.
Whether these mechanisms will be enough to prevent future space conflict and the possible ruination of critical orbits remains to be seen. There are still loopholes for weapons testing and deployment within existing treaties that could create serious future problems.
You mention that during World War II, the Nazis had planned a military space bomber aimed at attacking the U.S. Could you elaborate?
It was a rocket-powered manned aircraft that would enter space en route to its target. Its planned flight profile was in some respects similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo—which has a conventional take-off and then a rocket assist to get into space. But the so-called “Amerika” bomber had military aims and a weapons payload.
The commercial space sector has grown into an industry that grosses nearly $300 billion annually. What do you see as its primary Achilles’ heel going forward?
The primary challenges faced in the coming years by the commercial space industry are: possible degradation of the geostationary orbital belt (22,300 miles up) by orbital debris and satellite crowding; exhaustion of the available radio-frequency spectrum; and inaction by countries in reining in illegal jamming of satellite communications.
How will the cubesat revolution exacerbate these already crowded orbits?
Cubesats typically have no means of propulsion. This means that they cannot get out of the way of impending collisions and frequently are delivered into low-Earth orbit in batches, meaning that the cubesats all look alike from the ground because of their identical shape and small size. This poses a problem in cases involving damage liability.
The U.S., Russia, and China are all known to have offensive space weaponry. Anyone else?
At present, only three countries have tested devoted space weapons. But a number of other countries are capable of doing so, and India and a few others have already stated their intention to develop these capabilities.
Although U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons tests took place in space from 1958-62, they are now prohibited by the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Countries might decide to violate this agreement, but they would risk the ire of all space-faring nations since electromagnetic pulse radiation would harm all unhardened satellites indiscriminately.
What about kinetic weapons?
Kinetic space weapons include direct-ascent systems (that move straight from launch—using a radar or infrared seeker—to collide with their target) and co-orbital systems (that maneuver over several orbits into the same altitude and inclination of their target satellite and then destroy it). Fortunately, both types have specific limitations.
Less discriminate kinetic weapons include the distribution of sand, pebbles, or other objects into crowded areas of space, which could destroy random satellites. Presumably, such a weapon would only be used by a terrorist (and only if they afford a rocket).
And lasers and killer satellites?
High-powered lasers based on the ground or in space could harm sensors or cause spacecraft fuel tanks to explode. They include satellites capable of space-to-space capture or kill activities, or possible microwave weapons, which could damage a satellite’s electronics. Weapons with less permanent effects include electronic jammers, which interfere with broadcast signals or satellite controls. Fortunately, few effective space weapons have been tested to date, and even fewer deployed. So, there is still a reasonable potential to stop their proliferation.
If satellite launches jump from under a 100 per year, at present, to a 1000 or more by 2020, what sort of political tension will this create?
The coming increase in satellite numbers will make collisions far more likely and give added impetus to efforts to improve space situational awareness and traffic control, especially in low-Earth orbit.
What’s the worst satellite collision to date?
The most serious was the 2009 collision of a functioning Iridium [telecommunications] satellite with a dead Russian Cosmos spacecraft. No liability came into play because the Russian spacecraft was not operational, so the loss for Iridium could not be “blamed” on the Russians.
A more serious incident might be one involving a U.S., Russian, or Chinese military satellite in a time of crisis, where there could be considerably more tension, mistrust, and possible counter-actions. It is not hard to see such an incident bringing countries to the brink of war.