Trouble Brewing In Space

The consequences for the earth’s climate and its population in the event of nuclear detonations in space are terrifying. A nuclear winter could result and end life on a significant portion of the earth.

By Anil Madan

Is Russia developing an antisatellite nuclear weapon? US officials assert that just days before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia launched a satellite known as Cosmos-2553 which is designed to test components for an antisatellite system, or weapon if you will, that could be equipped to carry a nuclear device. Earlier this year, Russia rejected the charge, calling it a fabrication.

To be clear, the satellite launched in 2022 does not have a nuclear device or weapon onboard. The Biden administration, members of Congress, and industry experts who track such matters have been increasingly concerned that Russia has long been engaged in developing nuclear antisatellite capability. A nuclear device would have the capacity to render useless hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites in the low Earth orbit region.

The term low Earth orbit (LEO) is generally defined as an orbit around the Earth with a period of 128 minutes or less—so as to make at least 11.25 orbits per day—and within an altitude not more than about one-third the radius of the Earth, about 2,000 kilometers or 1,200 miles. The term LEO region or low Earth region is used to describe the area of space within the altitude ranging from 100-1,200 miles. Objects passing within this orbit region present a collision risk to the many LEO satellites that have been launched since man began space exploration and the commercial use of space.

LeoLabs is a company that provides satellite tracking and collision avoidance services in LEO. It describes LEO as a dynamic environment. The company reports that in 2007—almost 50 years from the dawn of the Space Age, the number of cataloged objects in LEO crossed the 10,000-object mark. That averages to about 200 objects per year. By 2021, the 20,000-object mark was crossed, taking about 15 years to double the number of space objects from the preceding 50 years, or an annual average of about 650+ objects. By 2022, the number of objects had increased to above 21,000. LeoLabs notes that while operational payloads accounted for most of this growth, approximately 70% of objects in LEO are still space debris, including derelict rocket bodies and nonoperational payloads, as well as fragments from hundreds of dead satellites.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported that there were nearly 6,000 satellites circling Earth. About 60% of these were defunct satellites or space junk and 40% were operational. The firm Euroconsult, according to the WEF estimated that 990 satellites will soon be launched every year and by 2028, there could be 15,000 satellites in orbit.

The Wall Street Journal reports that LeoLabs estimates that as of the end of April, there were almost 6,700 American satellites operating in LEO. China had 780 satellites there, while Russia had 149. Included in these totals are the Starlink satellites that provided Internet connectivity for Ukraine since Putin’s invasion in 2022.

US officials, notably Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Mallory Stewart, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb recently expressed concerns about Russia’s development of a nuclear antisatellite (ASAT) weapon capable of making LEO unusable.

Referring to the Cosmos-2553 satellite, they asserted that Russia possesses a test satellite in an unusually high radiation orbit. They dismiss as not plausible Russia’s claims that the satellite is for electronic testing because it is in an atypical orbital deployment for a scientific satellite.

The fear is that these types of satellites could be used to deploy nuclear devices that if exploded in LEO, would disrupt, and possibly destroy satellite communications capabilities of civilian, commercial and military assets. These include US military satellites as well as commercial assets including Starlink.

Assistant Secretary of State Plumb has described a nuclear weapon in space as indiscriminate, one without national boundaries, one that doesn’t distinguish between military satellites, civilian satellites, or commercial satellites, destroying them all.

LeoLabs has this stark warning in a 2022 article on its website: “The United States, India, Russia, and China have proven their ability to physically destroy a satellite by testing anti-satellite weapons (ASAT). These tests have resulted in thousands of pieces of space debris in LEO. Fragments from the 2021 Russian ASAT test, for example, continue to cause dangerous conjunctions: we observed ~3,000 in August alone. While there is a US-led movement to ban kinetic ASAT tests on orbital targets, the risk remains. There is also the possibility of a cyber-attack which could render a satellite non-operational. Russia’s threats against Space X’s Starlink satellites during the war in Ukraine, for example, have illustrated how real this risk is.”

Cosmos-2553 remains in orbit around the Earth. The US officials claim that Russia has been secretly operating it as a research and development platform for components of the new space weapon system. Russia has not yet deployed the weapon and has not tested any nuclear devices in space.

A few months ago, US Congressional Representative Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio, who is Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee referred to a serious national security threat and called on President Biden to declassify intelligence about it. The White House confirmed in a statement that Russia was pursuing a troubling antisatellite capability. But White House spokesman John Kirby emphasized that there was no immediate threat to the US and that no nuclear weapon had been deployed by Russia in space.

Russian denials came from on high with Putin himself declaring that Russia is categorically against the placement of nuclear weapons in space. On the other hand, various Putin acolytes have issued thinly veiled nuclear threats against Ukraine, Europe, NATO countries, and even the US. According to US officials, the Kremlin has rebuffed American efforts to engage in direct discussions on this subject.

It is widely known that the Pentagon has become more and more reliant on satellite-based technology including communications and targeting capabilities via GPS in recent years. The vulnerability of US commercial satellites to incapacitating attacks is a serious concern because they typically are not equipped to withstand attacks, particularly nuclear detonation in space. And the US military has increased its reliance on satellite and communications capabilities provided by private companies.

And, of course, the consequences for the earth’s climate and its population in the event of nuclear detonations in space are terrifying. A nuclear winter could result and end life on a significant portion of the earth.

Whereas the immediate issue here is about a Russian satellite, China too is now more active in space and its capability for the military use of space remains an ever-present concern.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 17 May 2024

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