Tag Archives: military satellites

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

If You Control Space, You Control Everything: Space as War Domain

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is looking to classify space as a domain for warfare in an attempt to deter China’s growing military power.  If NATO’s proposal succeeds, the international alliance could move forward with the development and use of space weapons.  According to NATO diplomats, the international organization is preparing to release an agreement that will officially declare space as a war domain. This means that aside from land, air and sea, space could also be used for military operations during times of war.

Although NATO’s partner countries currently own 65% of the satellites in space, China is reportedly preparing to launch a massive project that involves releasing constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit.  China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC)  is planning to put in orbit 150 or more Hongyun satellites by 2023. Some of these satellites will provide commercial services like high-speed internet while others would be controlled by the Chinese military. These militarized satellites can be used to coordinate ground forces and to track approaching missiles.

“You can have warfare exclusively in space, but whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air,” according to Jamie Shea, a former NATO official. “If you don’t control space, you don’t control the other domains either.”

Excerpts from Inigo Monzon , NATO Prepares For Space Warfare By Militarizing Low Earth Orbit, International Business Times, June 24, 2019

The Space Rat Race

India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth’s orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier…New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China’s activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.  Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

China’s success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.  In the back of Indian and Japanese officials’ minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In December 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.  There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.  Japan and India had a combined 132 — 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.

Excerpts fromNUPUR SHAW India and Japan awaken to risks of superpower space race, Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 8, 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 First to Shoot…from Space

North Korea’s preparations to launch a more advanced reconnaissance satellite with a high-resolution scanning capability threaten to push Asia’s space race deeper into the military theater.  The Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-exploration satellite, likely to be packaged with a separate communications satellite, will technically allow North Korea to transmit data down to the ground for the first time, thus offering real-time intelligence for potential ballistic-missile strikes.

This is well short of the technological capacity needed to deploy orbital weapon systems, but will cause some unease among Asian power-brokers China, Japan and India as they pour money into the last strategic frontier of outer space.  Space programs in Asia have largely been driven by competition for the US$300 billion global commercial transponders market, which is expected to double by 2030 if demand holds.

A shift toward miniature satellites of less than 20 kilograms, mostly used by governments and smaller companies, has drawn nations as diverse as Singapore, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea into a field led by Japan and China, with India a more recent player.

Japan placed two satellites in different orbits for the first time on December 2017, displaying a technical edge aimed at reducing launch costs for commercial clients. India announced this week that it had successfully tested a GSLV Mark III rocket that can lift a 4-ton satellite into orbit. In 2017, it managed to launch 104 satellites of varying sizes in just one operation. China has loftier ambitions, including a lunar landing some time in 2018, after sending a roving module down a steep crater on the moon in 2013. About 40 Chinese launches are likely in 2018, mainly to boost communications.  India and Japan are both locked in undeclared space races with China that go well beyond commercial rivalries and have muddied the debate over North Korea’s shadowy aims….

“Militarization” refers to any systems that enhance the capability of forces in a conventional setting, such as intelligence, communications and surveillance. “Weaponization” is the physical deployment of weapons in outer space or in a ground mode where they can be used to attack and destroy targets in orbit.  The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but the US has blocked efforts to ban space weapons outright. In 2007, Washington said it would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space.”

Excerpts from  ALAN BOYD,  Asia’s Space Race Gathers Pace, Asia Times, Jan. 6, 2018

SpaceX Falcon

A SpaceX Falcon rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May , 2017 to boost a classified spy satellite into orbit for the U.S. military, then turned around and touched down at a nearby landing pad.

It was the 34th mission for SpaceX, but its first flight for the Department of Defense, a customer long-pursued by company founder Elon Musk. The privately owned SpaceX once sued the Air Force over its exclusive launch services contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.)  The liftoff of a classified satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) officially broke ULA’s 10-year monopoly on launching U.S. military and national security satellites.

In addition to the NRO’s business, SpaceX has won two Air Force contracts to launch Global Positioning System satellites in 2018 and 2019.  For now, the military’s business is a fraction of more than 70 missions, worth more than $10 billion, slated to fly on SpaceX rockets. But with up to 13 more military satellite launches open for competitive bidding in the next few years and ULA’s lucrative sole-source contract due to end in 2019, SpaceX is angling to become a majo launch service provider to the Department of Defense.

A month ago, SpaceX for the first time launched one of its previously flown rockets to send an SES communications satellite into orbit, a key step in Musk’s quest to demonstrate reusability and slash launch costs.

Excertps, SpaceX Launches US Spy Satellite on Secret Mission, Nails Rocket Landing, Space.com, May 1, 2017

Kidnapper Satellites: war in space

It was May 2014 when a small team of American airmen monitoring a Russian satellite launch saw something they had never seen before. An object the team thought was a piece of debris from the launch suddenly came to life.  “The one object that we assumed was a piece of debris started to maneuver in close proximity to the (rocket) booster,” recalled Lt. Gen. David Buck …at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Buck… said the deliberate maneuvers the mystery object made close to the rocket’s booster were a red flag. Getting that close to another object in space is a complex feat, as objects can move as fast as 17,500 miles per hour….[W]hat the US military was witnessing was not debris at all, but instead a satellite with a dangerous capability, one that could allow it to cozy up next to another satellite and potentially destroy it….

The Russian satellite is officially known as Kosmos 2499 but it has been given a more daunting nickname: “kamikaze,” a spacecraft expressly designed to maneuver up close to another satellite to disable or destroy it. In other words, it’s a satellite that could go on the attack.Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former commander of Air Force space command, likened the satellite to a space Trojan horse. “You could have something on orbit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a communications satellite, when in actuality, it is also a weapon,” said Shelton.

Kosmos 2499 is far from the only threat. In September 2014, just a few months after Kosmos was placed in orbit, Russia launched an additional satellite named Luch with both maneuvering and spying capabilities.  “This satellite has been maneuvering through geosynchronous space … cozying up close to various communications satellites, listening to what traffic is flowing over those,” said Paul Graziani, CEO of civilian satellite tracker Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI).

Over the course of a year, Graziani’s team has watched as Luch parked itself next to three US commercial satellites and one European satellite. The Russians flew the satellite close enough to collect both civilian and, possibly, sensitive military information.  Graziani was charged with delivering the bad news to US-owned commercial satellite company Intelsat…

“If the operators of this spacecraft so chose, they could direct it to actually hit another spacecraft,” said Graziani.  Like Kosmos, Luch’s ability to maneuver has the potential to make it into a satellite killer.

 Launched in 2013, the Shiyan, meaning “experiment” in Chinese, was “experimenting” shadowing the smaller satellite, according to AGI. But then something unexpected happened: The smaller satellite repeatedly disappeared and then reappeared on their screens.“We saw the approach, we saw the larger spacecraft come close to the smaller spacecraft, and then we no longer saw the smaller spacecraft,” said Graziani.

The only reasonable explanation, experts say, is that the Shiyan has a robotic arm that was repeatedly grabbing and then releasing its smaller partner.  The Chinese government acknowledged the satellite’s robotic arm, saying the satellite is “mainly used in space debris observation,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

But space watchers like Graziani see a more sinister application.  “You could grab and hold of a satellite and maneuver it out of its mission,” said Graziani  If true, it would be a new threatening capability, allowing the Shiyan to essentially kidnap another satellite….

Lasers:  “You can aim a laser at a satellite’s sensor and try to make it hard to see,” said Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes.”With power dialed up high that same laser could permanently fry the satellite’s sensor. But “very expensive and important satellites should have shutters” to block this kind of threat, said Grego, who considers these types of activities more of a nuisance than a space attack.

Space drone: Moving further into the realm of science fiction, the US military has developed the first space drone, the X-37B. Bearing a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, the drone is officially a reusable spacecraft for carrying payloads into space…Its other missions are classified, but the drone’s maneuverability, payload space and ability to stay in orbit for hundreds of days have space watchers and countries like Russia and China wondering whether the X-37B would one day be used as a space fighter jet,

Excerpts from Jim Sciutto and Jennifer Rizzo War in space: Kamikazes, kidnapper satellites and lasers, CNN, Nov. 29, 2016