On Earth, 8 billion people compete for resources and countries jostle with each other, sometimes violently. By comparison, the final frontier seems calm and limitless. But the near-Earth space environment is finite too and it’s becoming increasingly contested and congested.
A new threat assessment
Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a new report, Space Threat Assessment 2022. The center is a nonprofit research organization that aims to define the future of national security. Relevant to the headlines that dominate the news right now, they’ve also analyzed the global effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this case, they are looking upward to the threats from space.
From Sputnik to the end of the 20th century, the United States and Russia were the only significant space-faring nations. Space was an uncontested environment. The situation is rapidly changing. Last year, there were more space launches than any year since the dawn of the space activity. China launched more satellites than any other country. Commercial space companies Blue Origins, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic sent 21 private citizens into space. At one point in December, there were a record 19 people in space.
Counterspace capabilities are the ways that militaries can defend their space assets or attack the assets of other world powers. The report summarizes counterspace weapons of four types. Cyberattacks target data or the systems that transit and control the flow of data. Electronic weapons jam signals from a satellite or issue false commands to an enemy satellite to disrupt its operations. Non-kinetic weapons like lasers can disrupt satellites or ground systems without making physical contact. Kinetic weapons are the most dramatic; they aim to eliminate a satellite or space asset. A CSIS timeline shows that tests and incidents have increased dramatically in the past five years.
Collectively, these weapons have a broad range of capabilities: they deceive, disrupt, degrade or destroy. In the contested arena of space, the boundary between defense and offense can be blurred.
The United States is still the world’s preeminent space power. Part of the U.S strategy to protect satellites from attack is to put them up in large numbers, making it expensive for enemies to take down a space network. By 2026, there will be a mega-constellation of 1,000 military satellites. An architecture is being built to track enemy missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. Counterspace activity is orchestrated by the U.S. Space Force, the first new military branch in 70 years. Just two years old, the Space Force has grown rapidly. Next year, it is expected to get more federal funding than NASA.
Meanwhile, old rivals are not standing still, and new rivals are emerging.
China has great ambitions in space. In the words of its President Xi Jinping: “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream.” The concern is that the ambitions include weaponizing space. In 2007, China destroyed one of its weather satellites, creating 3,000 chunks of lethal space debris larger than a golf ball and drawing international condemnation. More ominously, last year China tested a hypersonic glide vehicle that may have had nuclear capability.
Russia’s status as a space superpower has ebbed, but it retains extensive launch infrastructure dating back to the dawn of the Space Age. Last year, like China did previously, Russia conducted an antisatellite test that generated 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris. India also has space ambitions and carried out an antisatellite test in 2019 that caused a 44 percent increase in the orbital debris risk to the International Space Station.
The CSIS report also highlights Iran and North Korea as U.S. adversaries with developing space capabilities that could soon include counterspace weapons. As the space “club” grows so is the need for Defense Against the Dark Arts in Space. NATO’s Article 5, saying that an attack on one is an attack on all, has come to public attention with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This year, NATO extended Article 5 to cover attacks on space assets. General David Thompson, the vice chief of U.S. space operations, has said that American space systems are attacked “every single day.”
The threat of space junk
Alongside the militarization of space, another growing threat is from orbital debris.
Fewer than 100 satellites were launched per year through the early 2010s. Starting in 2020, the number has been over 1,000 per year, with a projection of 100,000 in Earth orbit by 2030. Space junk is made up of obsolete satellites, rocket parts and results of collisions in space, exacerbated by deliberate creation of debris in anti-satellite tests. NASA tracks 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball. But there are half a million the size of a marble and 100 million the size of a large sand grain. Traveling at 17,000 mph, even these tiny fragments can damage a spacecraft.
It’s only going to get worse. There is no international treaty governing space debris and no systematic effort to clean It up. Earth orbit is a new “tragedy of the commons,” where we ruin something because we profit from exploiting it and cannot prevent others from doing the same.
Let’s hope we act soon enough to prevent a cascading series of collisions, exponentially increasing the number and density of small pieces, in a dire scenario laid out by NASA scientist Donald Kessler. Earth orbit could then be rendered unusable. We have plenty of terrestrial concerns but would be well advised to spend some time paying attention to the growing problems above our heads.
Chris Impey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of hundreds of research papers on observational cosmology and education. He has written popular books on black holes, the future of space travel, teaching cosmology to Buddhist monks, how the universe began and how the universe will end. His massive open online courses have enrolled over 350,000 people.