STAR WARS: THE FIRST STRIKE?
Geopolitical tensions on Earth are moving to the skies as markets and states increasingly rely on space tech, writes Hasan Chowdhury
When the US first caught a Russian satellite tailing its own spacecraft in January, there was reason to be suspicious. But after a near-identical Kosmos 2543 satellite fired a missilelike projectile on July 15, that suspicion turned into public alarm and anger.
General John Raymond of Donald Trump’s newly minted US Space Force claimed the move was “consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons” that threatened its hi-tech gear in space.
The head of the UK’s space directorate followed suit. “Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and space systems,” said Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth.
Though the projectile didn’t hit a target, the incident, which Russia claimed was not a step-up in weapons testing, threatens a great escalation in tensions in the skies.
“Any conflict in space will be as a direct result of conflict on Earth,” says Chris Newman, professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University.
Russia isn’t the only one. North Korea has shown that it has ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles that can reach orbit, while China and India have shown their ability to shoot satellites out of the sky.
With thousands of satellites in space dictating everything from navigation systems to financial markets, attacks on them hold unparalleled risks.
A missile projection that hits a satellite target could lead to a “significant debris-generating event” that Newman says would “harm the space environment”. If even one satellite were destroyed, the repercussions would be significant. In what’s known as the Kessler syndrome, the generation of debris could lead to a cascade of collisions that ripple outwards and cause damage to any number of spacecraft. “Doing that is potentially putting one’s own space assets at risk,” Newman says. “To actually see a destruction of a satellite is, I would say, quite far down the line of options in space.” An attack in space could just as easily begin on Earth. Jamming involves the interference of communications with signals of a similar radio frequency to those occurring between satellites. Satellites must stay in constant contact with ground stations, which gives malicious hackers ample opportunity for disruption.
“One might argue that space warfare is already occurring through terrestrial systems,” says Ralph Dinsley, executive director of Northern Space and Security, a satellite tracking firm. “It is known that in certain regions of the world there are interferences with GPS signals on a regular basis.” There have been various attempts over the years to have a space arms treaty in place but they have mostly failed to materialise. The Outer Space Treaty, established in 1967, prohibits the stationing of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in space. But there is no total ban on weapons.
Tracking what’s in space is difficult too. A so-called space catalogue managed by the US gives insight into how many objects are within proximity to the Earth, but as Dinsley says, there is “scant information” and knowing what the true function of a satellite is in space is difficult to determine. That’s because many satellites have dual functions which can be both benign and dangerous at the same time. GPS, for example, is primarily a military application that just so happens to also have uses in navigation and as a timing signal for trades in banking. “A single-use satellite with a malevolent purpose, it’s easy to say that should be prohibited,” Newman says. “Where international law struggles is the technologies where communications can be used on the battlefield as well as for terrestrial communications.” With the threat of both cyber and physical attacks on satellites rising, stakeholders have had to step up preparations to defend against such an event. Last year, the Ministry of Defence awarded £1.5m to UK companies who could help prepare it for the “increasing militarisation” of space within the next 15 years. Among the defence technologies are an infrared camera device designed by Harwell-based MDA Space and Robotics that can notify satellites of any approaching threat. Oxford Space Systems is developing tech that confounds attackers by “changing the signature of a satellite”, while Harwell Associates Limited is working on tools to keep a close eye on objects “around strategic assets” more than 20,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Another firm called Veoware is using gyroscopes to give satellites an unprecedented degree of
‘One might argue that space warfare is already occurring. There are interferences with GPS signals on a regular basis’
‘I don’t think people appreciate how much we don’t know about what’s going on up there’
control for movement and rotation. Earlier this week, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said that the UK would look to bolster its ability to thwart threats in space as part of the integrated defence review. “The world I knew while a serving soldier at the end of the Cold War has changed beyond recognition,” he said.
“It is moving at an unprecedented pace and defence must move with it. Our adversaries go further, deeper and higher.”
For years, the UK’s response to adversaries in space has long depended on the leadership of the US, but this may not cut it for much longer. As Newman points out with the Russian projectile, “we only know about this because the US has said it”. “I don’t think people appreciate how much we don’t know about what’s going on up there,” he says.
“I think we can say with a degree of certainty that what has happened is a Russian satellite has ejected a highspeed object in what is likely an anti-satellite test.”
The lack of independent verification may be a grave issue for the UK. Earlier this month, the Government won a fiercely fought contest with a $500m (£388m) bid, in tandem with India’s Bharti Enterprises, to take a 45pc stake in collapsed satellite operator OneWeb, putting it in the fast lane in an international race to develop next-generation satellite technology.
The successful bid means the UK will position itself at the front of a pack of global players aiming to create an alternative to the ageing GPS system that has come to power so many of our vital services on the ground, while potentially unlocking ultra-high-speed broadband with a constellation of hundreds of satellites. But with new power comes new danger, and the threat the UK faces in space could be its most difficult challenge yet.