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Will War With Russia Mean War in Space?
War in space begins – and ends – fast. Indeed everything in space, at least in the space around our planet, happens fast. Satellites move at fantastic speed, circling the entire planet in ninety minutes. Missiles launched from the ground can reach them in minutes. When they collide – as they must, if the action was deliberate – they do so at hypersonic speeds, smashing together so quickly that the normal laws of physics cease to apply.
At hypervelocities – thousands of metres per second – metals begin to behave more like liquids than solids. A small object hitting a spacecraft might pass right through, puncturing a hole in a solar panel, or an oxygen cylinder or a fuel tank. A larger object might destroy a spacecraft completely, shattering it into thousands of fragments.
Such speeds obviate the need for explosives. Kinetic energy – mass and velocity alone – is enough to blow up a satellite, destroy a space station or rain devastation down on a city. Such was the case in November last year, when a rocket streaked high into the Russian sky. In minutes the missile reached its target – the long abandoned Kosmos 1408 satellite – and instantly reduced it to shrapnel.
That shrapnel will now orbit our planet for years to come: a long lasting risk to every satellite and astronaut who ventures into space. As if to highlight that, shortly after the explosion the shrapnel cloud approached the International Space Station. Astronauts rushed to take shelter in re-entry capsules. Should the worst have happened, leaving the station destroyed, those capsules would have represented a last-ditch effort to save the crew aboard.
Fortunately, the debris cloud passed safely. Mission planners – once they had a better fix on its location – were able to rule-out further risk. Still, the orbit that cloud now occupies contains hundreds of satellites. Each faces a risk of collision roughly double that before the explosion. Any could be the trigger of a cascading series of further collisions.
The destruction of Kosmos 1408 appears to have been a test of an anti-satellite missile; a technology previously demonstrated by America, China and India. Each of those tests was controversial, generated a cloud of space debris and sought to impress the threat of war in space on other superpowers.
The American test, at least, may have been justifiable. Back in 2008 a failed satellite full of hydrazine – a volatile fuel – was months away from falling back to Earth. That, some feared, could result in a toxic spill spreading across the planet – poisoning land, animals and people. By blowing up the satellite before that could happen, America claimed, it was acting responsibly.
Perhaps. But equally the test was a demonstration of power; of a capability that could have catastrophic implications in any future war. Satellites play a growing role in military strategy, providing everything from espionage to battlefield communications. By targeting them, a superpower can leave their opponent blindly stumbling in the fog of war.
Anti-satellite missiles are not, however, a hard technology to master. The basic laws of physics behind them are simple, the missiles themselves are widespread, as too is the ability to steer one into a satellite. Russia, China and India have all blown up satellites of their own in recent years – though thus far the technology has never been used in war.
The Russian test, though, was far riskier than most. Kosmos-1408 exploded into at least fifteen hundred fragments, each travelling at thousands of miles per hour. At such high speeds even the smallest fragment carries a huge amount of energy – enough to utterly destroy a satellite, should it meet one.
True, those fragments will eventually fall back down to Earth. But the higher the destroyed satellite is – and Kosmos-1408 was relatively high – the longer it will take to fall down. The fragments from the American test in 2008 fell back to Earth within weeks. Those from the Russian test will linger for decades.
Even more concerning, if possible, was the timing of the test. It took place against a background of worsening relations between Russia and the West. In the weeks that followed, Vladimir Putin - the Russian president – moved vast amounts of military equipment to the Ukrainian borders. War between the two countries could be days away; and war between Russia and Ukraine could quickly spiral into something far bigger.
If the missile test was intended as a warning, then the message was made crystal clear two weeks later. A Russian spokesman - in bombastic style - threatened to blow up America’s constellation of GPS satellites. Russia would not hesitate to act, he said, if their red lines were crossed.
Doing so would have terrible consequences. GPS is a vital part of modern infrastructure: used to guide aircraft and ships, to synchronise communications networks, to control electrical grids and to time financial transactions. True, some fallback systems do exist, but none is capable of replacing GPS. Its loss would be a harsh blow to modern civilization.
In space, the remains of the satellites would linger for millennia. Each would shatter into thousands of pieces, and – as GPS satellites are ten thousand miles high – the atmosphere would be incapable of pulling them back down. Over decades these fragments would disperse and form a tenuous metallic ring around the planet; a tribute to mankind’s folly.
That Russia could, if they so desired, blow up the thirty odd GPS satellites is not in question. The system is highly vulnerable to military attack, with no defensive abilities on the satellites themselves. So too is the European Galileo system, a similar navigational network. Destroying either would give Russia an advantage: shorn of GPS, and perhaps other satellites, the American military would be severely weakened.
But such an attack would be an aggressive move. America, and its allies, would be bound to retaliate. Indeed, an attack on GPS is unlikely to happen in isolation: Russia would need to attack dozens, perhaps hundreds, of satellites at once. America would strike back. Russia’s own navigational satellites would be targeted, as would other infrastructure. In other words, an attack on GPS would not end there: it would be a precursor to all out war.
That might make war in space unlikely, at least for now. But space and satellites are becoming a more critical part of our global infrastructure. If war comes, space will not be left in peace.
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