Tag Archives: satellite fragments

Stargazing as a Right and the Colonization of Sky

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

How Come Space is Full of Human Junk?

Getting rid of the deadly debris orbiting the Earth should become a priority for firms trying to do business there. If only they knew exactly where it is. The space race comes with a growing litter problem: U.S. officials expect the number of satellites to increase almost tenfold to 58,000 by 2030, many of them with lifespans not much longer than five years.

Space trash could potentially trigger devastating chain reactions, posing a significant threat to a space economy that is forecast by Morgan Stanley to generate $1 trillion in revenues by 2040. Only three big collisions have happened to date, but close calls are increasingly common. In November 2021, denizens of the International Space Station (ISS) had to take refuge in their capsules after a Russian antisatellite missile test created a cloud of wreckage.

In September 2022, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled that operators of satellites in the “low Earth orbit,” or LEO—below 1,200 miles of altitude—will, in two years’ time, be required to remove them “as soon as practicable, and no more than five years following the end of their mission.” The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, did ask for space junk to be disposed of within 25 years, but these were voluntary guidelines. NASA said in a 2021 report that compliance has averaged under 30% over the past decade. Yet 90% compliance would be required just to slow the pace at which dead satellites, rocket bodies and loose fragments are accumulating. There may be little choice but to mount a cleanup operation. The main questions are who will do it and how the junk will be found.

With only limited interest from big aerospace companies, startups have stepped up. Months after its inception in 2018, Switzerland’s ClearSpace signed a €86.2 million ($86.3 million) contract with the European Space Agency, or ESA, to eliminate remains of a Vega rocket by 2025. ClearSpace will use a robot to get hold of the debris and burn it in the atmosphere. Then there is Tokyo-based Astroscale, which has raised $300 million in venture capital since its inception nine years ago. This September, the U.K. Space Agency awarded £4 million, equivalent to $4.6 million, to both companies to remove defunct British satellites by 2026.

The LEO revolution unleashed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has launched over 3,000 of its miniaturized Starlink satellites, may suddenly turn this into a viable commercial market. Officials are getting spooked by all the extra clutter. In orbits lower than 375 miles, re-entry into the Earth naturally happens after a few years, but these will be crowded by Starlink alone. Many players will need to go higher, and set up “deorbit” plans that regulators—and sustainability-minded investors—find solid.

That still leaves satellite operators and trash-removal firms with a fundamental problem: Their information on an object, including position, shape and mass, involves a lot of guesswork. Most observations come from ground radars, which firms access through government agencies like the U.S. Space Command. But this data is often several hours old and can miss the mark by miles, so satellites and stations can’t swerve out of the way of approaching debris with full confidence. For removal missions, this will mean accommodating extra fuel and allowing for the possibility that an object is spinning faster than estimated, making it impossible to grab.

And this is for pieces larger than 10 centimeters, which according to the ESA number above 30,000 and are the only ones visible from Earth. Mathematical models suggest there are a million additional fragments measuring between one and 10 centimeters, and 100 million even smaller than that, often traveling many times faster than a bullet. Yet the ISS’s “Whipple shield” can be pierced by anything larger than one centimeter…

[A]ny company aspiring to profit from the final frontier will need to better understand the risks of the terrain. The alternative is a true tragedy of the commons that ends a promising new space age before it has really begun.

Excerpts from Jon Sindreu, The Difficult Search for Dangerous Space Junk, WSJ, Nov. 14, 2022

Sustainability or Lethality: Space

The United States SPACEWERX is the innovation arm of the U.S. Space Force and a part of AFWERX (the Air Force technology accelerator) whose purpose is to increase lethality at a lower cost.

The SPACEWERX has launched Orbital Prime whose purpose is to invigorate the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) market using Active Debris Remediation (ADR) as a use case for the foundational technologies. As the congestion of the space domain and  space debris threaten the long-term sustainability of the space domain, Orbital Prime will transition agile, affordable, and accelerated OSAM space capabilities to build the foundation for space logistics while preserving the global commons.

Excerpt from Space Prime

Everything Moving in Space Is a Weapon? Yes.

Kosmos 2542, a Russian satellite that was launched in November 2019, was “like Russian nesting dolls”. Eleven days after its launch it disgorged another satellite, labelled Kosmos 2543. Then, on July 15th, Kosmos 2543 itself spat out another object, which sped off into the void.  Merely a “small space vehicle” to inspect other satellites, said the Russians. Nonsense, said the Americans; it was a projectile. The intentl.. was to signal Russia’s ability to destroy other nations’ satellites….In January 2020, America complained that Kosmos 2542 and 2543 had tailed a spy satellite in an “unusual and disturbing” way (American satellites have also sidled up to others in the past). 

Anti-satellite weapons are not new. During the cold war, America and the Soviet Union developed several ways to blow up, ram, dazzle and even nuke each other’s satellites. The countries conducted two-dozen anti-satellite tests between them. Ten were “kinetic”, involving a projectile physically striking a target. But new competitors, and new technologies, mean anti-satellite warfare is a hot topic once again. China has conducted ten tests over the past 15 years, including a kinetic one in 2007 that created a great deal of space debris. India conducted its first kinetic test in 2019. America, Russia and China have all manoeuvred their satellites close to others, sometimes provocatively so. New methods of attack are being tested, including lasers and cyber-attacks.

Some satellites, such as America’s GPS constellation, blur the distinction between military and civilian assets. Over the past decade, America’s armed forces have put payloads on three commercial satellites, and plan to pay Japan to host others on its own navigation satellites….Then there is the question of what counts as an attack. Michael Schmitt, a law scholar, and Kieran Tinkler, a professor at the us Naval War College, say it is unclear whether jamming a civilian satellite would violate the general prohibition on attacking civilian objects. Blowing up a military one, meanwhile, might or might not constitute an indiscriminate (and hence illegal) attack, depending on whether it could have been disabled by other means and how much debris was produced.

Perhaps the biggest difference between space war and terrestrial war is how long the consequences can last. Much of the debris from China’s 2007 test, for instance, will still be in space at the turn of the next century. The more debris, the greater the likelihood of accidental collisions with other satellites, which generates more debris in turn. Enough debris could lead to a chain reaction known as Kessler syndrome, which could render entire swathes of near-Earth space unusable for decades…

Space Junk

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires states to consult each other on actions that “would cause potentially harmful interference”, though the rule has rarely been heeded. Most countries accept that, in wartime, a body of existing laws known as international humanitarian law would apply, as on Earth—something America confirmed in its “Spacepower” doctrine, published on August 10, 2020. International humanitarian law is based on principles such as distinction (between combatants and civilians) and proportionality (between civilian harm and military advantage). But how to apply such ideas in a place with few humans is not always obvious.

The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is being spearheaded by McGill University, in Montreal, and a separate Woomera Manual by the University of Adelaide. Both hope to publish their documents 2020…

Russia and China would like a formal treaty banning all weapons in space. Both are keen to prevent America from deploying space-based anti-missile systems which might threaten their own nuclear forces. America and its allies resist this. They argue that it is impossible to define a space weapon—anything that manoeuvres in orbit could serve as one—and that it would be easy to cheat. The European Union has instead proposed a voluntary code of conduct. Many non-Western countries would prefer a binding treaty…. Though most are not space powers, many are likely to become so in the future, so their buy-in is important.

Excerpts from Satellite warfare: An arms race is brewing in orbit, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

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

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

China Anti-Satellite Weapons

China had conducted two anti-satellite tests recently with its new laser technology, Konstantin Sivkov, the first deputy head of the Moscow-based Academy of Geopolitical Problems, told the Voice of Russia on Nov. 6, 2014….. The China Academy of Engineering Physics’ low-altitude air defense system designed to intercept aircraft below 500 meters was used in several drills against drones.

The PLA carried out two anti-satellite exercises with its laser weapon system as well, Sivkov also said, adding that it is crucial for China to destroy US satellites at the beginning of a conflict, should one arise. By shooting down US satellites, the PLA will be capable of blinding American air, ground and naval forces on the battlefield. After China tested its anti-satellite weapon for the first time in 2007, US satellites have been periodically disturbed by the Chinese laser weapon several times in orbit, the Defense News reported… Realizing that lasers are capable of destroying every advanced weapon systems, including aircraft carriers, China has invested huge sums in the development of such weaponry since the 1960s.

During an exercise held in 2009, the PLA successfully destroyed incoming rockets with a laser cannon. After the Shenguang 1 and Shenguang 2, the China Academy of Engineering Physics put the Shenguang 3 high-energy research center in service at Sichuan province located in southwestern China…

Excerpt, China conducted two anti-satellite tests: Voice of Russia, Nov. 6, 2014