Ever since President Trump announced his intention to establish a Space Force, much of the popular sentiment has involved images of jetpack-laden space troops engaging in zero-G warfare in the black expanse above our heads. But the reality of the threats to America’s satellite. Even world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has repeatedly spoken out in favor of a force tasked with orbital defense, seemed to misunderstand that nature of the threat posed to American satellites by opposing nations.
During a recent appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.,” Tyson pointed out that much of the opposition to the idea of a Space Force seems to be born out of dislike for President Trump, rather than actively engaging with a real threat to U.S’ security. Tyson made similar arguments on the Joe Rogan podcast, even going so far as to say he has been a supporter of increased military engagement in space since he was first asked about it by the Bush administration in 2001.
But despite his expertise, Tyson missed the mark regarding how warfare might play out in space. He argued that satellites wouldn’t likely engage with one another because of the risk of creating a cascading destructive effect through dispersed orbital debris. Space debris is already a serious concern for orbital operations, with bits of junk zooming through earth orbit at speeds more than 26,000 miles per hour. The threat posed by space junk was shown to stunning effect in the opening of the 2013 film Gravity:
Dr Tyson isn’t wrong that directly engaging satellites with kinetic weapons could produce a cloud of debris that would go on to destroy more satellites, producing even more debris, which then destroy even more satellites. However, that’s not how satellite warfare would likely take place.
France’s recent accusations of Russian espionage satellites closing with and eavesdropping on NATO communications satellites show that satellite warfare already exists, and doesn’t need to involve missile or lasers.
Nowadays, all you need to interfere with a satellite’s capabilities is dazzle its sensors with a laser, nudge it out of position, or capture the satellite and put it on a re-entry trajectory (the most aggressive and permanent option). From there, the friction of entering the earth’s atmosphere will do the work, burning up and breaking the satellite.
How easy would it be to do that? Easy enough for several small ventures to already demonstrate that capability. Many “space junk” programs aimed at capturing orbital debris and de-orbiting it would work just as effectively on satellites. In fact, researchers from the University of Surrey in England and Airbus recently released a video of them capturing a satellite using a net they launched from another satellite. This demonstration was intended as a technology demonstrator for a broader space junk initiative. But it’s hard to ignore the defense implications of private companies already fielding technology that could directly interfere with military satellites.
Designing weapons for use in space is, to be frank, easy once you can overcome the incredibly complex hurdle of getting there, as these companies are continuing to demonstrate.
Which begs the question, if a university in England can field space weapons with the capacity to interfere with satellite operations, what’s stopping nations like Russia or China? Based on reports of anti-satellite programs being developed by these nations, the answer seems to be clear: Nothing.
Watch one satellite capture another with a net in the footage below: