Tag Archives: fractionated satellites

Stargazing as a Right and Colonization of Skies

Do people have a right to an unobstructed view of the heavens? For most of human history, such a question would have been considered nonsensical—but with the recent rise of satellite mega constellations, it’s now being asked again and again. Mega constellations are vast groups of spacecraft, numbering in the thousands, that could spark a multitrillion-dollar orbital industry and transform global connectivity and commerce. But the rise of mega constellations also threatens to clutter the night sky, disrupt the work of some astronomers and create space debris that harms people on Earth and in space alike. The mega constellation era began in May 2019, when Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites in its Starlink constellation… Today the constellation’s numbers have swelled to more than 3,000 and account for fully half of all active satellites in space.

Ramon Ryan has argued in the in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law that the regulatory approval of these satellites by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may breach environmental law as part of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted in 1970. Specifically, he argued that the natural aesthetic of the night sky and the profession of astronomy may be protected under NEPA—but that the FCC has so far sidestepped NEPA’s oversight , thanks to a “categorical exclusion” the agency was granted in 1986 (when it simply wasn’t licensing that many satellites)….  

In November 2022, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) published a report that suggest that the FCC should revisit its categorical exclusion from NEPA and consider whether it should update its procedures in light of the rise of mega constellations. “We think they need to revisit [the categorical exclusion] because the situation is so different than it was in 1986,” says Andrew Von Ah, a director at the GAO…The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recommends that agencies “revisit things like categorical exclusions once every seven years,” Von Ah says. But the FCC “hasn’t really done that since 1986.”

According to the report’s recommendations, the FCC should review whether mega constellations affect the environment…The findings showed there were concerns in a number of areas, not just the brightness of the satellites but also the collision risk they pose in space and the possible creation of space junk, the interference to radio astronomy caused by satellite radio transmissions and even the potential for satellites reentering the atmosphere to affect Earth’s climate or harm humans on the ground. ..

The day after the GAO report’s release, the FCC  announced the creation of a new bureau for its space activities, which will help the agency handle the applications for 64,000 new satellites it is presently considering…

Excerpts from  Jonathan O’Callaghan Satellite Constellations Could Harm the Environment, New Watchdog Report Says, Scientific American, November 24, 2022

Poker and Blackjack: How to Make War in Space

In March 2018, India became only the fourth country in the world—after Russia, the US, and China—to successfully destroy a satellite in orbit. Mission Shakti, as it was called, was a demonstration of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT)—or in plain English, a missile launched from the ground. Typically this type of ASAT has a “kill vehicle,” essentially a chunk of metal with its own guidance system, mounted on top of a ballistic missile. Shortly after the missile leaves the atmosphere, the kill vehicle detaches from it and makes small course corrections as it approaches the target. No explosives are needed; at orbital speeds, kinetic energy does the damage…. China’s own first successful ASAT test was in 2007….

But going to war in space… doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations.  Satellites are, after all, computers that happen to be in space, so they are vulnerable to attacks that disable or hijack them, just like their terrestrial peers.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands. It’s not clear if they could have done so but chose not to. Nor is it clear who was behind the attack, although some commentators at the time pointed the finger at China. Experts warn that hackers could shut off a satellite’s communications, rendering it useless. Or they could permanently damage it by burning off all its propellant or pointing its imaging sensor at the sun to burn it out.

Another common mode of attack is to jam or spoof satellite signals. There is nothing fancy about this: it’s easier than hacking, and all the gear required is commercially available.  Jammers, often mounted on the back of trucks, operate at the same frequency as GPS or other satellite communication systems to block their signals. …There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground…. Russia also seems to use spoofing as a way of protecting critical infrastructure,,,.As well as being hard to pin on anyone, jamming and spoofing can sow doubt in an enemy’s mind about whether they can trust their own equipment when needed. The processes can also be switched off at any time, which makes attribution even harder.

The 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent…In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

“It’s happening all the time at this low level,” says Harrison. “It’s more gray-zone aggression. Countries are pushing the limits of accepted behavior and challenging norms. They’re staying below the threshold of conflict.”..

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically….Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

As the dominant player in space for decades, the US now has the most to lose. The DIA report points out that both China and Russia reorganized their militaries to give space warfare a far more central role. In response, the US military is starting to make satellites tougher to find and attack. For instance, the NTS-3, a new experimental GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022, will have programmable, steerable antennas that can broadcast at higher power to counter jamming. It’s designed to remain accurate even if it loses its connection with ground controllers, and to detect efforts to jam its signal.

Another solution is not just to make single satellites more resilient, but to use constellations in which any one satellite is not that important. That’s the thinking behind Blackjack, a new DARPA program to create a cheap network of military communications satellites in low Earth orbit.

Excerpts from Niall Firth How to fight a war in space (and get away with it), MIT Technology Review, June 26, 2019

Killing Machines: Tiny Spy Satellites

As long as we’ve been launching spy satellites into space, we’ve been trying to find ways to hide them from the enemy. Now, thanks to the small satellite revolution—and a growing amount of space junk—America has a new way to mask its spying in orbit…

The National Reconnaissance Office, the operator of many of the U.S.’s spy sats, refused to answer any questions about ways to hide small satellites in orbit.  In 2014, Russia launched a trio of communications satellites. Like any other launch, spent stages and space debris were left behind in space. Air Force Space Command dutifully catalogued them, including a nondescript piece of debris called Object 2014-28E.  Nondescript until it started to move around in space, that is. One thing about orbits; they are supposed to be predictable. When something moves in an unexpected way, the debris is not debris but a spacecraft. And this object was flying close to the spent stages, maneuvering to get closer.  This fueled speculation that the object could be a prototype kamikaze-style sat killer. Other less frantic speculation postulated that it could be used to examine other sats in orbit, either Russia’s or those operated by geopolitical foes. Either way, the lesson was learned…

Modern tracking radar is supposed to map space junk better than ever before. But small spy satellites that will hide in the cloud of space debris may go undetected, even by the most sophisticated new radar or Earth-based electronic signals snooping.

Excerpts from Joe Pappalardo, Space Junk Could Provide a Perfect Hiding Spot for Tiny Spy Satellites, Popular Mechanics, Nov. 30, 2018

The Quiet Revolution in Space

National security critically depends on space, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is focused today on creating the capabilities needed to help make that environment a real-time operational domain, DARPA Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar…

“The questions we ask ourselves at DARPA about the space domain … is what would it take to make the space domain robust for everything that we need militarily and for intelligence, and what would it take to make space a real-time operational domain, which it’s not at all today,” the director said, noting that many other nation-states now are active in orbit and space is a domain where conflict is becoming a real possibility.

Through a national security lens, she added, nothing needed from an intelligence or military perspective can be done effectively without access to space. Something as simple as navigation completely depends on GPS in nearly every part of the world and in every operating regime.

In an era of declining budgets and adversaries’ evolving capabilities, quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for national and economic security. Today’s satellite launch systems require scheduling years in advance for a limited inventory of available slots and launches often cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created its Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1, program to help overcome these challenges and reduce the time to get capabilities to space. DARPA artist-concept graphics  “Because of the demands on launch, from the day you know you have to put an asset on orbit to the time you can plan on a launch today is still unacceptably long,” Prabhakar said.

Commercial capabilities will help, she added, “but if in a time of war we imagine if we could go to space not in a month or next week but tomorrow, think about how that would completely change the calculus for an adversary that’s thinking about [using an antisatellite] weapon to take out one of our satellites

”With that ambition in mind, DARPA is now starting Phase 2 of its Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1.“It’s a reusable first stage that’s designed to be able to put 3,000 or 5,000 pounds into low earth orbit … at a very low cost point — a few million dollars — but very significantly the objective on the DARPA program is by the end of the program to fly that spacecraft 10 times in 10 days,” Prabhakar said, “something that’s inconceivable with any of the spacecraft we have today.”

A second piece of the puzzle is what can be done in orbit, she added, referring to low earth orbit, or LEO, an orbit around Earth whose altitude is between 99 and 1,200 miles.

“We’re doing some amazing work with geo[synchronous]-robotics and rethinking [geostationary Earth orbit]-architectures once you have an asset that would allow you to extend the life or do inspection or simple repairs at GEO, which is something you can’t do today.  GEO [geostationary orbit]is a stable region of space 22,370 miles from Earth.  And because GEO is a stable environment for machines — but hostile for people because of high radiation levels — DARPA thinks the key technology there is space robotics.  DARPA’s Phoenix program seeks to enable GEO robotics servicing and asset life extension while developing new satellite architectures to reduce the cost of space-based systems.

The program’s goal is to develop and demonstrate technologies that make it possible to inspect and robotically service cooperative space systems in GEO and to validate new satellite assembly architectures. Phoenix has validated the concept that new satellites could be built on orbit by physically aggregating “satlets” in space, according to DARPA.

Satlets are small independent modules that can attach together to create a new low-cost, modular satellite architecture, DARPA says. Satlets incorporate essential satellite functionality — power supplies, movement controls, sensors and others — and share data, power and thermal management capabilities. DARPA now is working to validate the technical concept of satlets in LEO [Low earth orbit an orbit around Earth whose altitude is between 99 and 1,200 miles.]

Excerpts from  Cheryl Pellerin Director: DARPA Space Projects Critical to Shifting Trajectories , US DOD News, Nov. 22, 2016


A Barbed Wire for Outer Space

In 2007 a missile launch by the Chinese in 2007 blew up a dead satellite and littered space with thousands of pieces of debris. But it was another Chinese launch  in 2013 that made the Pentagon really snap to attention, opening up the possibility that outer space would become a new front in modern warfare.  This time, the rocket reached close to a far more distant orbit — one that’s more than 22,000 miles away — and just happens to be where the United States parks its most sensitive national security satellites, used for tasks such as guiding precision bombs and spying on adversaries.

The flyby served as a wake-up call and prompted the Defense Department and intelligence agencies to begin spending billions of dollars to protect what Air Force Gen. John Hyten in an interview called the “most valuable real estate in space.”..[I]nstead of relying only on large and expensive systems, defense officials plan to send swarms of small satellites into orbit that are much more difficult to target–GPS III is the next generation of GPS satellites..

At the same time..[a]gencies have begun participating in war-game scenarios involving space combat at the recently activated Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. The Pentagon is even developing what is known as the “Space Fence,” which would allow it to better track debris in space.

National security officials are not only concerned that missiles could take out their satellites but also that a craft’s equipment could be easily jammed. Potential enemies could “dazzle” sensors, temporarily blinding them, or deploy tiny “parasitic satellites” that attach to host satellites and do their worst. That could lead to soldiers stranded on the battlefield with little means of communication or missiles that would not be able to find their targets.  “We have considered space a sanctuary for quite some time. And therefore a lot of our systems are big, expensive, enormously capable, but enormously vulnerable,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work.

Pentagon officials say that Russia and China have been developing the capability to attack the United States in space…Pentagon officials fear its satellites could be sitting ducks. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said recently that North Korea has successfully jammed GPS satellites, that Iran was busy building a space program and that “violent extremist organizations” were able to access space-based technologies to help them encrypt communications, among other things.

The Pentagon spends $22 billion on space programs and is investing an additional $5 billion in space efforts this year, including $2 billion for what is known as “space control,” which includes its highly classified offensive programs. Hyten declined to discuss the ways in which the United States is preparing to attack other countries in space. But the United States has had the capability to blow up satellites since 1985, when an F-15 fighter pilot fired a missile into space that took out an old military observation satellite.

Excerpts from  Christian Davenport: A fight to protect ‘the most valuable real estate in space, Washington Post, May 9, 2016