Does Recent Satellite Collision Foreshadow Future Space Destruction?
You probably heard about the satellite collision two weeks ago, when a US communications and defense satellite was struck by a defunct Russian satellite.
The collision involved an amazing amount of force (two 700lb. objects, traveling towards each other at over 13,000 mph, apparently creates the impact energy of 5 tons of TNT)! The impact also created a huge cloud of shattered-satellite space debris about 500 miles large that could circle the Earth for the next 10,000 years.
This giant cloud of collision debris now, itself, may be putting other satellites and space flights at risk, as even a pebble of debris, cruising faster than a rifle bullet, can destroy anything in its path. For instance, shielding on the International Space Station is only designed to protect the station from debris less than 1 cm in diameter.
Before that massive debris cloud was created this month, there were already over half a million pieces of space debris over 1 cm in size in the Earth’s orbit (as illustrated below).
Though some effort has gone in to developing space equipment to mitigate the creation of space debris, there are few economical techniques for dealing with the huge amounts of small debris already surrounding the planet.
Considering that our televisions, internet, cell phones, defense systems, and other technological infrastructures rely in whole or part on orbiting satellites, it’s easy to see that the destructive power of these debris clouds could easily disrupt our lives in serious (maybe even crippling) ways.
Could Satellite and Space Debris Battles Be the Future of Warfare?
If these debris clouds can spell accidental near-doom for our technology infrastructure, what could happen if we had to worry about the creation of space debris deliberately designed to attack our satellites?
On Saturday, a Wall Street Journal op-ed raised concerns about the recent successful launch of Iran’s first satellite. Though the Iranian Safir rocket and satellite were rudimentary by U.S. standards, they spell a future in space for more and more countries — including more and more who disagree with each other.
The op-ed’s author, an Israeli defense official, argued:
“The Safir demonstrates a fair amount of sophistication for an initial launcher. The question remains whether this sophistication is indigenous and what features, if any, have been imported from abroad. Some of the Safir’s features bear the telltale signs of previous space launching experience, implying outside help. Such help could come from any country that possesses Soviet-era missile and space technology. Yet the Safir is far more advanced than North Korea’s space launcher. This fact — and the magnitude of the entire Iranian space enterprise — indicates that much of the success is homegrown.”
The “Star Wars”/SDI space-based weapons proposals of the 1980s have not yet reappeared, but we may be closer than we realize.
As Foreign Policy magazine notes:
“No one, including the United States, is likely to have actual weapons in space in the foreseeable future. Space control does not require such weapons. Ground-based, sea-based, and even air-based antisatellite weapons (ASATs) can do the trick. The United States has long been working on a variety of highly sophisticated ASAT programs — indeed, the infrastructure for missile defense is the sort of infrastructure needed for ASAT systems.
“When a country builds ever greater military capabilities, potential rivals react. China, in particular, is wary of the coercive possibilities of U.S. military power. The Middle Kingdom says it wants a space treaty, but in January 2007, it tested its own somewhat primitive ASAT — a kinetic-kill device that roughly replicated a test the United States carried out in 1985.
“Is a space-related arms race under way? Yes. But there is still time to ratchet it down, and the Obama administration has signaled that it might do so. That will be difficult, though. Exceptionalism is a major driver of foreign policy, and influential people and hard-line think tanks are comfortable with the idea that full-spectrum dominance in all things military is America’s right.”
That ratcheting-down may be even more difficult if Iran and Israel are two of the nations in this space-arms race together.
Foreign Policy continues with the nightmare “space war” scenario:
“The United States continues to work on its ‘defensive’ ASAT systems. China and Russia do the same to counter U.S. capabilities. India and Japan put together their own individual systems. Ditto for Pakistan, if it survives as a coherent country. Israel follows suit, as does Iran.
“In a time of high tension, someone preemptively smashes spy satellites in low-earth orbits, creating tens of thousands of metal chunks and shards. Debris-tracking systems are overwhelmed, and low-earth orbits become so cluttered with metal that new satellites cannot be safely launched. Satellites already in orbit die of old age or are killed by debris strikes.
“The global economy, which is greatly dependent on a variety of assets in space, collapses. The countries of the world head back to a 1950s-style way of life, but there are billions more people on the planet than in the 50s. That’s a recipe for malnutrition, starvation, and wars for resources.”
Is any of this likely to happen? Probably not. Is it something we should probably be spending some time and energy to get a handle on? I’d say so. Part of the solution is just normal foreign relations and diplomacy to develop agreements about space usage. Part of it is putting resources into figuring out how to clear the Earth’s orbit of all this garbage. Maybe we should cross our fingers a little too — just think if the US-Russian satellite collision of this month had occurred 40 years ago, would anyone have believed it was accidental then?