Tag Archives: space weapons

Conquering Space: China’s X-37B and the United States

Ever since China claimed success in the secretive launch of an experimental spacecraft, experts have been pondering over what it could be and what it did in space.The spacecraft – mounted on a Long March 2F rocket – was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China on Sept. 4, 2020 and safely returned to Earth after two days in orbit…Unlike recent Chinese high-profile space missions, very few details have emerged about the vehicle and no visuals have been released. Chinese authorities have been tight-lipped about the nature of the short-duration excursion and what technologies were tested. The exact launch and landing times were not revealed, nor was the landing site although it is thought to be the Taklamakan Desert, which is in northwest China.

Three years ago, China said it would launch a space vessel in 2020 that “will fly into the sky like an aircraft” and be reusable. A reusable spacecraft – as the name implies can undertake multiple trips to space – thereby potentially lowering the overall cost of launch activity. A traditional one-off spacecraft – costing tens of millions of dollars – is practically rendered useless after a single mission.

The experimental vessel reached an altitude of about 350km, which is in line with China’s previous crewed flights. The spacecraft also released an unknown object into the orbit before returning to Earth…Once the testing is complete, such a vehicle could be used to launch and repair satellites, survey the Earth, as well as take astronauts and goods to and from orbit, possibly to a planned future Chinese space station.

The Chinese craft’s size and shape remain unclear but it is widely believed to be some sort of uncrewed space plane similar to the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle operated by the US Air Force. The recent mission could be linked to the Shenlong – or divine dragon – space plane project, which has been in development for some time, according to reports. A second Chinese reusable space plane called Tengyun, or cloud climber, is also in the works. If confirmed as a space plane, China would become only the third country to have successfully launched such a vehicle into orbit after the US and the former Soviet Union. The European Space Agency is working on its own reusable orbital vehicle called Space Rider, while India is also said to be developing a space shuttle-like craft.

The X-37B, resembling a miniature space shuttle, has been in orbit since late May 2020 following its launch on its sixth assignment. Very little is known about the X-37B’s missions, prompting speculation that the planes could be used for spying activity or testing space weapons.

x-37b

According to Bleddyn Bowen, China’s spacecraft launch is “just another part of China becoming a comprehensive space power that utilizes space technology for the purposes of war, development, and prestige like all others”.

Pratik Jakhar, China claims ‘important breakthrough’ in space mission shrouded in mystery, BBC, Sept. 9, 2020

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

Mining the Moon: The First Mover Advantage

The US government is starting to lay down the groundwork for diplomacy on the moon. On 15 May, 2020 NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine released a set of principles that will govern the Artemis Accords on the exploration of the moon. The accords are named after NASA’s Artemis programme, the US initiative to explore the moon, with a planned launch of astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. Other countries are also increasingly turning towards the moon, which is concerning when a landing on the moon can send up clouds of potentially hazardous dust that travel a long way across the surface and even into orbit…

At the moment, there is little practical international law governing activities on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 deals with general space exploration, while the more specific Moon Agreement of 1984 states that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of all mankind”, prohibiting the ownership of any part of the moon or any resources from the moon….However, no nation capable of human space flight has signed the Moon Agreement, effectively rendering it moot. In fact, in April 2020, US president Donald Trump issued an executive order supporting moon mining and taking advantage of the natural resources of space.

The Artemis Accords aim to protect historic locations like the Apollo landing sites but encourage mining in other areas. They also promote transparency and communication between nations, requiring signatories to share their lunar plans, register any spacecraft sent to or around the moon and release scientific data to the public.  That transparency requirement might be a stumbling block for potential parties to the accords, says Forczyk. “I really don’t know how much countries are going to be willing to share some of their more delicate, sensitive information,” she says. “

The rest of the stipulations of the Artemis Accords are about safety: nations will be able to set “safety zones” to protect their activities on the moon, they will have to work to mitigate the effects of debris in orbit around the moon and they will agree to provide emergency assistance to any astronauts in distress.

Rather than attempting to put together an international treaty, which could be difficult to negotiate before NASA’s next crewed launch to the moon, the US will sign bilateral agreements with individual countries.

Excerpts from Leah Crane, NASA’s Artemis Accords aim to lay down the law of the land on the moon, New Scientist, May 20, 2020

Cleaning Up Space Junk

A four-armed robotic junk collector will be launched into space by the European Space Agency in what it says will be the first mission to remove an item of debris from orbit. About 3,500 defunct satellites and an estimated 750,000 smaller fragments are orbiting the Earth at an average speed of 20,000km/h.  Unless a clear-up operation is mounted, the chances of collisions will escalate as thousands more satellites are put into orbit.

The ClearSpace-1 mission, scheduled for launch in 2025, will cost €120m and will grab a single piece of junk. But the agency hopes the mission will pave the way for a wide-reaching clear-up operation, with Esa’s director general calling for new rules that would compel those who launch satellites to take responsibility for removing them from orbit once they are retired from use.  “Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” said Jan Wörner, Esa’s director general. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”

The target for ClearSpace-1 is a piece of junk called Vespa, which was left in an orbit around 800km above the Earth by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. Vespa weighs 100kg – around the size of a small satellite – and was selected because it has a simple shape and sturdy construction, which make it unlikely to fragment when it is grabbed. The “chaser” ClearSpace space probe will be launched into the target orbit where it will track down Vespa, grab it using a quartet of robotic arms and drag it out of orbit, with Vespa and the chaser both burning up in the atmosphere on the way down to Earth. A future ambition is to create a clear-up robot that could eject junk into the atmosphere, before continuing to capture and de-orbit other pieces of junk.

European Space Agency to launch space debris collector in 2025, Guardian, Dec. 9, 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

The X-37B Drone: 4th Mission

The unmanned X-37B spacecraft was launched May 20 2015  atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The liftoff will begin the reusable space plane’s fourth mission, which is known as OTV-4 (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4).  Most of the X-37B’s payloads and specific activities are classified, so it’s not clear what the space plane will be doing once it leaves Earth. This secrecy has led to some speculation that the vehicle might be some sort of space weapon. Air Force officials have repeatedly rejected that notion, saying that the X-37B flights simply test a variety of new space technologies.

For example, the space plane is carrying a type of ion engine called a Hall thruster on OTV-4, Air Force officials said. This Hall thruster is an advanced version of the one that powered the first three Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communications satellites, the officials added.  NASA is also flying an experiment on OTV-4. The agency’s Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space investigation will see how exposure to the space environment affects nearly 100 different types of materials. The results should aid in the design of future spacecraft, NASA says.

The X-37B looks like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle. The robotic, solar-powered space plane is about 29 feet long by 9.5 feet tall (8.8 by 2.9 meters), with a wingspan of 15 feet (4.6 meters) and a payload bay the size of a pickup-truck bed. Like the space shuttle, the X-37B launches vertically and lands horizontally, on a runway.

Excerpts from Mike Wall, Air Force Gets X-37B Space Plane Ready for Its Next Mystery,  SPACE.COM, May 18, 2015

To Conquer Space – China

After decades hiding deep in China’s interior, the country’s space-launch programme is preparing to go a bit more public. By the tourist town of Wenchang on the coast of the tropical island of Hainan, work is nearly complete on China’s fourth and most advanced launch facility…Secrecy remains ingrained—soldiers at a gate politely but firmly decline to say what they are guarding.

The decision to build the base on Hainan was made for technical reasons: its proximity to the equator, at a latitude of 19 degrees north, will allow rockets to take better advantage of the kick from the Earth’s rotation than is currently possible with launches from China’s other bases which were built far inland at a time of cold-war insecurity. That will allow a bigger payload for each unit of fuel—a boon for China’s space ambitions, which include taking a bigger share of the commercial satellite-launch market, putting an unmanned rover on Mars around 2020, completing a manned space station around 2022 and possibly putting a person on the moon in the coming decade, too. By 2030 China hopes to test what could be one of the world’s highest-capacity rockets, the Long March 9.have no explanation for the apparent delay. Secrecy is a difficult habit to shake off.

Excerpt from Space: Ready for launch,  Economist, Jan. 10, 2015, at 40

Space – the Wild West

Space is a current and future battleground without terrain, where invisible enemies conceivably could mount undetectable attacks to devastating effect if the right deterrent and defensive plans aren’t pursued now, the assistant defense secretary for global strategic affairs told a think tank audience on Sept. 17, 2013  Madelyn R. Creedon spoke to a Stimson Center gathering whose audience included analysts focused on the question of deterrence in space. The center released a publication this week titled “Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations,” presenting a number of essays examining various perspectives on space deterrence.

Creedon noted that in Defense Department parlance, deterrence is “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or the belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” In other words, she said, if deterrence is effective, an adversary has or believes he has more to lose than to gain by attacking.  Deterrence remains a core defense strategy for the United States, she added, and the nation’s nuclear deterrent is “still alive and well.”  Creedon acknowledged that one classic approach to considering space deterrence — that is, preventing potential enemies from attacking U.S. or partner satellites and other military or economic assets in space — is to try to apply lessons learned during the Cold War. Then, the United States and the Soviet Union kept an uneasy diplomatic truce and piled up enough nuclear weapons to guarantee mutually assured destruction.

But one flaw to comparing the two deterrent challenges, she said, is that an attack that disables a satellite, unlike one from a nuclear warhead that flattens a major city, doesn’t threaten a nation’s existence. Another is that the two superpowers spent decades constructing an elaborate, mirrored, deterrent Cold War architecture and protocols, while space is still, comparatively, “the Wild West.” A third is that an attack in space or cyberspace may rely on digital rather than conventional weapons, and so could occur without warning or even detection.

“If there is an attack against a space asset, it isn’t visible,” she said. “You can’t watch it on CNN, and unless you’re directly affected by the capability that the space assets provide, you’re probably completely oblivious that the attack happened.”

She said DOD is developing and implementing what safeguards it can implement in space using four mutually supportive elements to deter others from taking action against U.S. assets:

— Working to internationalize norms and establish a code of conduct to enhance stability;

— Building coalitions to enhance security;

— Adding resilience to U.S. space architectures; and

— Preparing for an attack on U.S. and allied space assets using defenses “not necessarily in space.”

“We believe this four-element approach … will bolster deterrence,” Creedon said.

The department is working with the State Department and international partners to define elements of good behavior in space, she said. “States must remain committed to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, security and stability of the outer-space environment,” she added.  Creedon said work is underway to build deterrent coalitions and increase space awareness. She said the “Five Eyes” nations, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are extending their intelligence cooperation to expand their collective space situational awareness…

The United States is meanwhile working to lower the benefit to potential attackers by employing more satellites, participating in satellite constellations with other countries and purchasing payload space on commercial satellites when feasible.  Creedon said the U.S. approach to space deterrence is similar to its strategy in any domain: take “prudent preparations to survive, and to operate through, and, hopefully, prevail in any conflict.”

By Karen Parrish, Official Describes Evolution of Space Deterrence, American Forces Press Service, Sept. 19, 2013

Space Weapons and Space Law

“Policy, law and understanding of the threat to space is lagging behind the reality of what is out there,” warned Mark Roberts, a former Ministry of Defence official who was in charge of government space policy and the UK’s “offensive cyber portfolio”.….

The disabling of satellites would have a disastrous impact on society, knocking out GPS navigation systems and time signals. Banks, telecommunications, power and many infrastructures could fail, Roberts told the conference….Agreements such as the 1967 Outer Space treaty and the 1979 Moon treaty are supposed to control the arms race in space. Some states have signed but not ratified them, said Maria Pozza, research fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at Cambridge University.  Existing treaties do not specify where air space ends and outer space begins – although 100km (62 miles) above the Earth is becoming the accepted limit.

The Navstar constellation of satellites was used to provide surveillance of Iraq during the Gulf war in 1991. Was that, asked Pozza, an aggressive use of space, a “force-multiplier”? Satellites may have also been used to photograph and locate al-Qaida bases, Osama bin Laden or even assess future strikes against Syria.

The Chinese government has recently moved to support a 2012 EU code of conduct for space development, which, Pozza said, was a softer law. The draft Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space treaty has not yet been agreed. “Are we dismissing the possibility of a hard law or giving it a good chance?” Pozza asked.

The Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 that destroyed a defunct orbiting vehicle and showered debris across near Earth orbits. Other satellites have been jammed by strong radio signals. BBC transmissions to Iran were disrupted during this year’s elections through ground signals ostensibly sent from Syria.

In 2011, hackers gained control of the Terra Eos and Landsat satellites, Roberts said. The orbiting stations were not damaged. “The threat can now be from a laptop in someone’s bedroom,” he added.

Professor Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the UK Space Agency, said scientists were now exploring the possibility of robotic systems that grapple with and bring down disused satellites or laser weapons to clear away debris in orbit.  Both technologies, he pointed out, had a potential dual use as military weapons. 3D printing technologies would, furthermore, allow satellite operators to develop new hardware remotely in space.

The UK is formulating its space security policy, group captain Martin Johnson, deputy head of space policy at the MoD, said. Fylingdales, the Yorkshire monitoring station, has been cooperating for 50 years with the USA to enhance “space awareness” and early warning systems. The UK, Johnson said, was now working with the EU to develop a complementary space monitoring system.

Excerpt, Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, The Guardian, Sept. 11, 2013

The Third X-37B Space Drone

An experimental robotic space plane developed for the Air Force is slated to be launched Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2012) from Cape Canaveral, Fla., fueling an ongoing mystery about its hush-hush payload and overall mission.  Air Force officials offered few details about the mission. They said the unmanned space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, simply provides a way to test technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

This is the third time that the Air Force will send an X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into orbit.   The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and landed 224 days later on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara. The second X-37B spent 469 days in space.  The only information the government released was when the space plane was launched and when it returned.

Because of its clandestine nature, some industry analysts say it could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe.  But the Pentagon has repeatedly said the X-37B is simply a “test bed” for other technologies.

The X-37B is about 29 feet long, about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that are about 15 feet from tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and is powered by unfolding solar panels. It is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days.  The spacecraft was built in tight secrecy by Boeing Co.’s Space and Intelligence Systems unit in Huntington Beach. Engineering work was done at the company’s facilities in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. Other components were supplied by its satellite-making plant in El Segundo.

Weather permitting, the plane is set to be launched Tuesday atop a 19-story Atlas V rocket, which will lift the spacecraft into orbit inside the nosecone. Once in orbit, the X-37B will emerge for its estimated nine-month journey.

By W.J. Hennigan, Another secretive space drone is set for launch, LA Times, Dec. 11, 2012