Destroying all of low Earth orbit's satellites has never been easier or more likely to happen.
An American anti-satellite missile launched by the Navy in 2008. Image: US Navy
The United States unequivocally won the space race and, with it, uncontested dominance in low Earth orbit for roughly five decades. But the country's space dominance is not only beginning to show cracks, the whole system could literally crash due to the increasing threat of so-called “dangerous space incidents”—the specter of space weapons deployed by an upstart like China, North Korea, or Iran.
There’s mounting evidence, in fact, that China is actively testing new space weapons that could threaten the entire low Earth orbit ecosystem, which hosts of GPS, spy, and weather satellites and the International Space Station.
So far, the safety of low Earth orbit has persisted on the idea of mutually-assured destruction, the same idea that kept the United States and the Soviet Union from bombing each other off the face of the Earth during the Cold War. That tenuous arrangement has worked so far, but an increasing number of countries are gaining the technology to destroy a satellite, which is pretty concerning, according to Micah Zenko, a conflict prevention expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Generally, space is thought of as a free, “open” space for any country to launch satellites into, but in the case of any sort of Earthbound military struggle, the battlefield can easily extend into orbit.
“The US is the undeniable lead actor in space. You get officials talking about wanting open, transparent access to space, but then you talk to military commanders, and they talk about controlling space, denying access to space,” Zenko told me. “We want to promote an open space domain, but in times of crisis, the military wants to control space. Getting that balance is so difficult. So much space activity is conducted in total secrecy.”
Experts believe this is the trajectory of China's May, 2013 launch. Image: Secure World Foundation
With NASA launches promoted far and wide, broadcast on television and online, and tweeted about incessantly, it’s easy to forget that, really, we don’t know a whole lot about what other countries are doing up there. Take, for instance, last May’s Chinese rocket launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Nearly 10 months later, we’re still not exactly sure what the country put into orbit, but citizen observers are pretty positive that it was a satellite destruction test launch.
In a paper published last month, Brian Weeden, a technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation, wrote that “while there is no conclusive proof, the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of the rocket component of a new direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile.”
“The system appears to be designed to place a kinetic kill vehicle on a trajectory to deep space that could reach medium earth orbit (MEO), highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). If true, this would represent a significant development in China’s ASAT capabilities,” Weeden wrote.
Obviously it’s possible, even likely, that US intelligence officials know more about the Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese space programs than they’re letting on. But Zenko says that, with no pre-space-launch notification agreement, the US really has no way of knowing if China is launching a rocket into space—whether it’s a peaceful one or an anti-satellite rocket.
“They’re not transparent at all, and it’s hard to know what other countries’ intentions are for its space capabilities,” he said. “It’s a significant intelligence collections priority, but a lot of what we know about China’s satellites comes from hobbyists who have really good telescopes and are dedicated to watching what goes on in space.”
Civilian analysts are often the best source of information for Chinese space launches. In this image, Brian Weeden uses Google satellites to pinpoint Chinese launch pads in Xichang. Image: Secure World Foundation
Meanwhile, North Korea put its first satellite into space less than two years ago, but already could probably modify its rockets to destroy a satellite, if it wanted to. Then, there's Iran, which last year announced plans to open its first "space monitoring center" in order to figure out what satellites orbit above the country. If it doesn't like them, Zenko writes, the country might not hesitate to destroy them.
"North Korea placed its first satellite in orbit in December 2012 using a rocket derived from the Taepodong II missile, which could alternatively be used to destroy an inactive satellite or maliciously target a US satellite," Zenko wrote. "Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran's capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory."
As Gravity taught us, there’s an incredible amount of space junk already polluting low Earth orbit, where the majority of the world’s satellites are located—one collision can create a ripple effect in which everything eventually gets destroyed. And China has shown itself to be volatile—an early anti-satellite test in 2007, where the country destroyed one of its own satellites as a show of power, created more than 3,000 trackable pieces of space junk.
Right now, NASA and other space agencies have a fairly good handle on many of these pieces of junk, which hurtle through space at speeds of a couple miles a second. But any additional collisions, whether accidental or purposeful, create more pieces of junk. With access to space becoming much easier and cheaper, we’ve got a situation where a collision has become much easier to create.
There’s not necessarily an answer or a solution—the best strategy at the moment is to simply not piss off other countries to the point where they want to destroy space for everyone. So far, that strategy has worked well, and the United States' anti-satellite weapons remain, by far, the best in the world. But really, given the exponential nature of space junk destruction, that doesn't matter—any ASAT will do.
We’ve also got a David-and-Goliath situation going, where the United States and American companies own roughly 43 percent of all active satellites. A world without GPS or spy satellites would be one that has a much more even playing field, militarily speaking. And all it would take to do something like that would be the destruction of another satellite or two. We all live and survive in a world in which nuclear weapons are pointed every which way and are ready to fire at a moment’s notice, so, given that, satellite destruction might not rank too high on a list of pressing existential crises, but it’s something to think about.