One of the more distressing pieces of news recently is that President Trump wants to create a “Space Force” as a branch of the US armed forces. According to Vice President Pence: “Other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them, however, share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law. So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom in this new frontier.” And, “Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already. . . history has proven that peace only comes through strength. And in the realm of outer space, the United States Space Force will be that strength in the years ahead.” There are two reasons I find this troublesome. The obvious one is we do not need war in space, although, of course, if someone else is taking their military to space, it is reasonable to respond. That leaves open the question, is anybody else taking their military to space? The second one is there is a UN convention that says space will be reserved for peaceful purposes, and in the absence of clear evidence of some other violation it appears that the current administration is going to ignore this convention, which has the deeper problem that if the US is not going to honour its agreements, what is the point of anyone else negotiating? So why? It appears what is becoming an only too familiar excuse: the Russians have done it.
Done what? The case made by Yleem Poblete (State Department, and fuller text at https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/285128.htm ) was that Russia has a satellite that has been behaving oddly, and very suspiciously. The first problem here is the “suspicious satellite” was not identified. The point of concern for Poblete was that Russia has deployed a satellite they claim to be an inspector satellite in October, 2017, and the US thinks it is doing something that is contrary to that claim. So what is it doing? Apparently its orbital behaviour was considered inconsistent with what the US considered an inspector satellite would have done. That raises the question, what did it do and what was it expected to do? Poblete goes on to say the only certainty is that it is in orbit. The rest of its behaviour is unexpected and unclear to purpose.
Russia did not launch anything that could be so described in October, 2017, but it did deploy a subsatellite (Cosmos 2523) which separated from a major satellite then. Apparently Russia launched Cosmos 2519 in June 2017, and in August a subsatellite Cosmos 2521 separated from it. In October, Cosmos 2523 separated from one of these two. These subsatellites then carried out various manoeuvres and as an example, 2521 may have returned and docked with 2519. They all changed their orbits to have different characteristics. None of these manoeuvres were illegal or threatening and while we don’t know what they were for and I suppose we don’t know everything about them, it seems strange to get overly concerned about this. In my opinion, the simplest explanation is that the Russians were practising controlled orbital manoeuvres, possibly under automated control, which, of course, would be highly desirable in any space exploration program.
It is true Poblete raised a very legitimate point: how do you verify what a satellite is actually doing? The same thing goes the other way, of course. One point of concern for me, though, is that this is certainly not a reason to launch a military response. The other question is, is this a straw man accusation, something to politically justify this space force concept?
There is the implied claim that Russia is developing and deploying anti-satellite weapons. Let us leave aside the obvious question as to what evidence is there, and ask instead, why would they do that? The most obvious reason is that the US uses military satellites to carry out surveillance on ground activities (and if some sources are to be believed, with extreme accuracy) and also many US guided weapons depend on satellite positioning to steer them. Therefore the accusation is probably true, but it is rather understandable, and I would be surprised if the US military is not doing the same thing to counter Russian satellites. The point I am making here is that the militaries of the world have already taken notice that space exists.
So, is there anything more that a satellite could do, other than carry out surveillance, aid navigation and carry messages? Could it be a weapon? At this stage, I feel it is unlikely, the reason being that any “ammunition” has to be taken up there. It is reasonably easy, although very expensive, to take up electronics, etc, but something that will do damage to something else on the ground is another matter. One might think that taking a hydrogen bomb would allow it a faster attack, but that is not true. Something in orbit has orbital velocity, and re-entering the atmosphere at that speed leads to intense heat generation, and if you use the atmosphere to reduce the speed, it actually takes longer to arrive than a slower missile launch. There is a case for shooting down other satellites, but it is still probably easier to do that from Earth. You will hear postulates of lasers, etc, but to get a laser powerful enough to do real damage, the power demands involve a huge beast. There are much easier ways to damage a satellite, and the probability that there are satellites up there that will seriously damage any given country is probably fairly remote.
One thing that has become a problem is that more than one country has tested anti-satellite weapons by destroying one of their own defunct satellites. The problem then is, what does “destroy” actually mean? Usually it seems to mean, blow the thing up into many pieces, which then go onto erratic orbits, with velocities probably in the order of 7,500 m/s. Now if the orbit were circular, that would be fairly harmless to anything on a corresponding circular orbit because they would never meet, but the fragments of an explosion will have a variety of eccentric orbits on different planes, and while the collisions will not have that relative velocity, the relative velocity could still be in the few thousand meter per second range, and that is a distinctly dangerous velocity. A moderate-sized piece of metal would make a cannonball seem modest.
As it is right now, orbital space around Earth is starting to get cluttered. I have heard people argue that NASA should investigate asteroid mining. As of now, I am not sure why, because asteroids, apart from a possible iron/nickel core, will have the composition of space dust, and hence have some similarities to basalt on Earth. Nobody wants to mine that. On the other hand, this space junk is made of already refined metals. I rather fancy that collecting that space junk and recycling it would make more sense.
In the meantime, it would also be helpful if the nations could behave in a way that did not lead to weaponizing space.