On Earth, 8 billion people compete for resources and countries jostle, sometimes violently. By comparison, the final frontier seems calm and limitless. But the near-Earth space environment is also finite and becoming increasingly contested and cluttered.
A new threat assessment
Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a new report, Space Threat Assessment 2022. The center is a nonprofit research organization that aims to define the future of national security. Related to the headlines dominating the news right now, they also analyzed the global effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this case, they are looking up at threats from space.
From Sputnik to the end of the 20th century, the United States and Russia were the only significant space nations. Space was an undisputed environment. The situation is changing rapidly. Last year there was more space launches than any year since the dawn of space activity. China has launched more satellites Than any other country. Commercial space companies Blue Origins, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic sent 21 individuals in the space. Sometime in December there was a save 19 people in the space.
Counterspace Abilities are the means by which the military can defend its space assets or attack the assets of other world powers. The report summarizes counterspace weapons of four types. Cyberattacks target the data or systems that pass through and control the flow of data. Electronic weapons jam a satellite’s signals or send false commands to an enemy satellite to disrupt its operations. Non-kinetic weapons like lasers can disrupt satellites or ground systems without making physical contact. Kinetic weapons are the most spectacular; they aim to eliminate a satellite or a space asset. A CSIS chronology shows that tests and incidents have increased significantly over the past five years.
Collectively, these weapons have a wide range of abilities: they deceive, disturb, degrade or destroy. In the contested arena of space, the line between defense and attack can be blurred.
The United States remains the world’s leading space power. Part of the US strategy to protect satellites from attack is to install them in large numbers, making it costly for enemies to destroy a space array. By 2026, there will be a mega-constellation of 1,000 military satellites. An architecture is built for track enemy missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. Counterspace activity is orchestrated by the United States space force, the first new military branch in 70 years. Barely two years old, the Space Force has grew up fast. Next year is should get more federal funding than NASA.
Meanwhile, old rivals do not stand still, and new rivals emerge.
China has big ambitions in space. In the words of its president Xi Jinping: “Exploring the vast cosmos, developing the space industry and making China a space power is our eternal dream.” The concern is that the ambitions include militarization space. In 2007, China destroyed one of its weather satellites, creating 3,000 pieces of deadly space junk larger than a golf ball and prompting international condemnation. More worryingly, last year China tested a hypersonic glide vehicle which might have had nuclear capability.
Russia’s status as a space superpower has declined, but it retains extensive launch infrastructure from the dawn of the space age. Last year, as China has done before, Russia conducted a anti-satellite test which generated 1,500 pieces of traceable space junk. India also has space ambitions and has conducted a anti-satellite test in 2019 which caused a 44% increase in the risk of orbital debris for the International Space Station.
The CSIS report also highlights Iran and North Korea as US adversaries with developing space capabilities that may soon include counterspace weapons. As the space “club” grows, the need for Defense Against the Dark Arts in Space. NATO’s Article 5, that an attack on one is an attack on all, came to public attention with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This year, NATO has extended Article 5 to cover attacks on space assets. General David Thompson, vice chief of US space operations, said US space systems are offensive “each day.”
The Threat of Space Debris
Along with the weaponization of space, another growing threat comes from orbital debris.
Fewer than 100 satellites were launched per year until the early 2010s. As of 2020, the number has been more than 1,000 per yearwith a projection of 100,000 into Earth orbit by 2030. Space junk consists of obsolete satellites, rocket parts and the results of space collisions, exacerbated by the deliberate creation of debris during anti-satellite testing. NASA tracks 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball. But there are half a million the size of a marble and 100 million the size of a large grain of sand. Traveling at 17,000 mph, even these tiny fragments can damage a spacecraft.
It will only get worse. There is no international treaty governing space debris and no systematic effort to clean it up. Earth orbit is a new “tragedy of the commonswhere you ruin something because you profit from its exploitation and you can’t stop others from doing the same.
Hopefully we’ll act soon enough to prevent a series of cascading collisions, exponentially increasing the number and density of small pieces, in a disastrous scenario presented by NASA scientist Donald Kessler. Earth’s orbit could then be rendered unusable. We have many earthly concerns, but we would do well to spend some time paying attention to the growing issues above our heads.
Chris Impey is a astronomy teacher at the University of Arizona. He is the author of hundreds of Research Papers on observational cosmology and education. He wrote popular books on black holesthe future of space travelteaching cosmology to buddhist monkshow the the universe began and how the the universe will end. His massive open online courses enrolled more than 350,000 people.