Weapons in space

Space may be the final frontier, but it’s likely to be the next battleground. At least that was the conclusion I drew from a distinguished panel that spoke to the Fletcher Club of New York a few days ago (May 9). The evening’s topic, the weaponization of space, seemed reasonably innocuous – I’d expected to come away having heard of the evils of taking weapons into orbit and then be reminded that the Outer Space Treaty prohibited weaponizing the high frontier. Instead I heard that space has already been militarized and the question is not “if” but, rather, “to what extent” this militarization will occur. Fantasies of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica aside, I thought the evening was a rather sobering reminder of our propensity for turning technology into weaponry.

The lead speaker, Dr. Gregory Matloff, started off by pointing out that anything in orbit is a weapon, if only by virtue of its position and speed. If you take a ton of metal moving at 17,000 miles per hour and drop it a few hundred miles onto someone’s building, well, that building is going to cease to exist. Think about all of the energy that’s needed to lift a satellite into orbit – a major chunk of that energy is released when the satellite crashes back to Earth.

Matloff also talked a little bit about the threat that asteroids pose to Earth, pointing out that the next “dinosaur killer” is out there somewhere. He’s right, of course – there is general agreement among astronomers and astrophysicists that the Earth will be slammed again at some point and the question is “when” and not “if” it happens. It behooves us to learn how to move asteroids out of a collision path if we’re to have the ability to save ourselves. But as Matloff points out, anyone who can move an asteroid out of the way can also move it so that it drops on an enemy’s head.

The next two speakers, Jeff Kueter and Taylor Dinerman, noted that space is already weaponized and that space warfare is already taking place, even if space itself is not the battlefield. To take the most obvious example, the only way to communicate with our satellites – the only way they’re useful to us – is through our communications with them; jam the communications and the satellites are useless. This has already happened, in fact – jamming GPS signals is a well-developed science – and jamming other signals is no more difficult (not to mention attacks against the ground stations that control the satellites). They went on to point out that the United States and Russia are the nations most reliant on space for both commerce and war-fighting – this makes them the nations with the most to lose as well. If North Korea (for example) attacks our satellites in orbit we lose our capabilities and they are unaffected. Shooting down satellites (which both China and the US have demonstrated the ability to do) can fill near-Earth orbit with debris, filling the airwaves with radio jamming signals can render satellites mute and uncontrollable – these technologies are already developed and in use.

Closing out the panelists was astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, certainly the world’s most famous astrophysicist and one of the world’s most famous scientists. Tyson, while disclaiming direct knowledge of space weaponry, also pointed out that physics places limits on anything in orbit, weapon or no – what matters (to paraphrase) is the mass, speed, and altitude because these are what give an object its energy. After discussing the merits of various asteroid diversion schemes (hint – blowing one up is not a good way to go since then we’ve got thousands of incoming asteroid bits instead of just one) – he also pointed out that it is far easier for one satellite to attack another (hopefully vaporizing it with an advanced weapon instead of blowing it up and strewing still more junk in orbit). Like the other panelists, Tyson didn’t seem to put much stock in the Outer Space Treaty, pointing out that it seems unlikely that the most developed nations will join hands and sing Kumbaya in space. National interests will likely trump feel-good treaties – especially those without any real teeth.

During the discussion Tyson made another interesting point – in preparing one of his many books he’d spent some time looking into the motivations behind the world’s most expensive projects and he’d found only three common themes: war, commerce, and religion. The pyramids, the space program of the 1960s, the Manhattan Project, the cathedrals of Europe, the voyages of the Age of Exploration, the Crusades, and much more – Tyson pointed out that all of these came down to one or more of these three basic themes (playing on this theme he also suggested that the fastest way to get people to Mars would be for the Chinese government to “lose” a memo outlining plans for a Chinese military base on the red planet – facing the prospect of a rival military base on Mars he speculated that we’d need a few months to design and build the spaceship and nine months or so to reach Mars, considerably faster than the current non-plans).

The evening ended less inconclusively than I would have expected. There seemed to be fairly general consensus that, while there might not be any nuclear weapons in outer space, it is already militarized. The question is more what level of control we might have over the militarization. It occurred to me that the current limits over chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons might give some insights into what we can expect in space – many nations have one or more of these weapons, but enlightened self-interest (in a nuclear exchange, everybody loses) has kept that particular genie under control (if not necessarily in the bottle). In spite of everything, and in spite of some uses by bit players (e.g. the use of chemical weapons in the Iran/Iraq war) the fact remains that there has been no large-scale use of non-conventional weapons in over a half-century. It could be that mutual fear and caution can accomplish what good intentions alone cannot.

It was also clear that nations might contravene treaties but they are more loathe to work against their best interests. Ironically, it could be that the best way to dissuade the Chinese (and any other nation with anti-satellite capabilities) might be to give them a bigger stake in space. When they have as much to lose as we do, they also have as much to gain by helping to safeguard low-Earth orbit – and it won’t take Kumbaya to get their help.

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4 Responses to “Weapons in space”

  1. Mark L. May 16, 2012 at 2:15 PM #

    You’ve probably already seen this, but if you haven’t, I’d be curious to hear your views on the recent MIT low-dose radiation study. As an interested layman, I distrust the whole concept of hormesis and thresholds because I so very much want it to be true, and it’s hard to tell how seriously to take studies like this.

    And thanks for your work – this is one of my favorite blogs.

    • Dr. Y May 16, 2012 at 6:25 PM #

      First, thanks for your kind comment! I’m enjoying writing ScienceWonk and it’s nice to know that there are those who enjoy reading it.

      With regards to the MIT posting, I have to say that I also have to exercise some caution when reading about possible hormesis and threshold effects because I know how easy it is to fall prey to confirmation bias and to see only what I hope to be true. That being said, there seems to be a lot of evidence from studies of people in high-background radiation areas, from radiation workers, and from flight crews that would support the article.

      In particular, I visited the city of Ramsar Iran a little over a decade ago and measured background radiation levels (naturally occurring) that were about 100 times as high as the average in the US, but the people (and wildlife) there seem perfectly healthy and they do not appear to have any higher incidence of cancer or birth defects. The same appears to be true in other such areas in India and Brazil. This certainly has implications for clean-up after a radiological emergency – but you’ll have to wait for more since that’s the posting I’m working on now!

  2. Rick May 24, 2012 at 12:53 PM #

    >> moving at 17,000 miles per second… Should be miles per HOUR. And yes, it has been hypothesized that merely dropping a very heavy titanium beam out of orbit with an attached targeting mechanism would be the worlds best “bunker buster”, penetrating perhaps a thousand feet into the earth, so treaties banning “space weapons” are likely past their prime.

  3. Dr Y May 24, 2012 at 3:48 PM #

    Thanks for catching my mistake! I’ll fix that this evening when I put up tomorrow’s posting.

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