The Hamilton Spectator

Satellites Vulnerable Amid Space Threats

- This article is by Selam Gebrekidan, John Liu and Chris Buckley.

U.S. lags behind China in bolstering navigation services.

The United States and China are locked in a new race, in space and on Earth, over a fundamenta­l resource: time itself. And the U.S. is losing.

Global positionin­g satellites serve as clocks in the sky, and their signals have become fundamenta­l to the global economy — as essential for telecommun­ications and financial exchanges as they are for drivers.

But those services are increasing­ly vulnerable as space is rapidly militarize­d and satellite signals are attacked on Earth.

Yet, unlike China, the U.S. does not have a backup plan for civilians should those signals get knocked out.

The risks may seem as remote as science fiction. But in February, the United States said that Russia may deploy a nuclear weapon into space, refocusing attention on satellites’ vulnerabil­ity.

Tangible threats have been growing for years.

Russia, China, India and the U.S. have tested antisatell­ite missiles, and several major world powers have developed technology meant to disrupt signals in space. One Chinese satellite has a robotic arm that could destroy or move other satellites.

Russian hackers targeted a satellite system’s ground infrastruc­ture in Ukraine, cutting off internet at the start of the war there. Attacks like jamming, which drowns out satellite signals, and spoofing, which sends misleading data, are increasing.

If the world were to lose its connection to those satellites, the economic losses would total billions of dollars a day.

Despite the risks, the U.S. is years from having a reliable alternativ­e source for time and navigation for civilian use, documents show and experts say. The Transporta­tion Department, which leads civilian projects for timing and navigation, disputed this, but did not provide answers to follow-up questions.

The Biden administra­tion is soliciting bids from companies for solutions. But it could take years for those technologi­es to be widely adopted.

Where the United States is lagging, China is moving ahead, erecting what it says will be the largest, most advanced and most precise timing system in the world.

It is building hundreds of timing stations on land and laying more than 19,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cables undergroun­d, according to planning documents, state media and academic papers. The country also plans to launch more satellites as backup sources of signals.

China retained and upgraded a World War II-era system, known as Loran, that uses radio towers to beam time signals across long distances. An enhanced version provides signals to the eastern and central parts of the country, extending offshore to Taiwan and parts of Japan. Constructi­on is underway to expand the system west.

The United States, though, decommissi­oned its Loran system in 2010, with President Barack Obama calling it “obsolete technology.”

A private firm, Satelles, working with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado, has developed an alternativ­e source for time using satellites that were orbiting about 780 kilometers above Earth.

N.I.S.T. scientists say the signals are a thousand times stronger than those from GPS satellites, which orbit more than 19,000 kilometers above Earth. That makes them harder to jam or spoof. And because low-Earthorbit satellites are smaller and more dispersed, they are less vulnerable than GPS satellites to an attack in space.

China has similar plans to upgrade its space-time system by 2035. It will launch satellites for its GPS system, known as Beidou, and it plans to launch nearly 13,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit.

China says its investment­s are partly motivated by concerns about an American attack in space. Researcher­s from China’s Academy of Military Sciences have said that the United States is “striving all-out” to build its space cyberwarfa­re abilities.

The United States has increased its spending on space defense, but Space Force, a branch of the military, did not answer specific questions about the country’s antisatell­ite abilities. It said it was building systems to secure the nation’s interests as “space becomes an increasing­ly congested and contested domain.”

 ?? REED HOFFMANN/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? In this long exposure, a string of SpaceX Starlink satellites passed over Kansas.
REED HOFFMANN/ASSOCIATED PRESS In this long exposure, a string of SpaceX Starlink satellites passed over Kansas.

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