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A Brief Primer on Anti-Satellite Warfare Tactics

Satellites make it possible for governments to provide essential services, such as national defense, navigation, and weather forecasting. Private ventures use satellites to offer highly desired services that include video program distribution, telecommunications, and Internet access. The Russian launch of a satellite, with nuclear power and the likely ability to disable satellites, underscores how satellites are quite vulnerable to both natural and manmade ruin.

The Russian launch increases the risk that satellites can be disabled, immediately evaporating billions of dollars in value, while also adding to space debris that can collide with satellites, rendering them worthless. Having a nuclear power source, extends the available time in space and probably the maneuverability of the satellite. This capability arguably violates a treaty-level Russian commitment to keep space nuclear-free. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, Article IV (1967). However, the U.N. document lacks any enforcement option and Russia surely will characterize its technology as a source of operational power and propulsion, not weaponry.

Set out below, I explain how the sun and manmade anti-satellite techniques can annihilate satellites. Despite global consensus to promote peaceful uses of outer space for the benefit of everyone, the stakes have increased that space will become “weaponized” as a new theater of warfare. See Rob Frieden, Dangers From Regulatory Vacuums in Outer, Inner, and Near Space (Nov. 2023), Militarization, weaponization, and the prevention of an arms race, and Space Weapons.

Natural Risks Satellites are launched into various locations above the Earth where solar radiation can rise to a level that disrupts circuitry and orbital stability. The Earth’s gravitational force pulls satellites downward. Satellites need onboard propulsion to offset gravity, but such “station keeping” capability is limited by available fuel and power. Because satellites cannot be repaired or refueled in orbit, components, like batteries, eventually fail. Satellites in outer space, from about 60 to 22,300 miles above the Earth, typically have a usable life of 10 years. Low Earth orbiting satellites, closer in proximity to Earth and smaller in size, have much shorter life expectancies.

Human Risks

While satellite technology has vastly improved, roughly one in three launches fail to insert space objects into proper orbit. Leaky rocket boosters, design defects, weather conditions at launch, and other factors can render a massive investment of time, money, and effort worthless. Even if a satellite reaches the proper location, components may fail prematurely resulting in diminished performance and early end of life. The risk of costly calamities in space has risen at an alarming rate, because national governments understand the importance of space orbiting resources, for surveillance, communications, Earth observation, and navigation. China, India, Russia, and the United States have developed so-called anti-satellite technologies designed to disrupt or eradicate operational satellites. The techniques include Earth-based and orbiting resources that can directly impact a nearby target or do so from a distance. Currently, available options include missiles and other projectiles, as well as using radio, lasers, and software to disrupt the satellite’s ability to receive instructions and perform as designed.

Nations can render satellites worthless in ways that limit the damage solely to the satellite by nudging it out of a stable orbit further outward into deep space or downward toward Earth at a trajectory resulting in complete vaporization. Failing to execute either of these two strategies can result in the creation of thousands of intact space debris that can later collide with other satellites.

Space Treaty Obsolescence and Ineffectiveness

Just as the private and public opportunities increase using space to benefit everyone, a chronic lag in government oversight, consumer safeguards, and essential operational guardrails has the potential to frustrate and possibly thwart progress and stability. The five Space Treaties, administered by the United Nations, has not foreclosed the growing risk of catastrophic space vehicle collisions, the proliferation of space debris that increase the odds for additional collisions, and the incentive and ability of some to weaponize space.

Unless the nations of the world quickly revise the treaties to clarify what is meant by peaceful uses of outer space, some space-faring governments will exploit ambiguity with potentially disastrous consequences.

By Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair and Professor of Telecommunications and Law

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