Many of us are rightly concerned about the situation in many of the world’s trouble spots. Every year, there seem to be more and more areas that have a match close to the powder keg, and a number of countries don’t seem to care if the fuse is lit. You may already have a queasy feeling in your stomach about the possibility of war with Iran, Russia, China, and others. You might be dismayed, but not surprised that a war might break out. Here’s where the surprise comes in: The war could start in space.
Scientific American reported in a recent issue that there are 1300 satellites high up over the Earth, without which we would have major problems communicating, forecasting weather, navigating, and more. There are also a number of satellites that have military applications. Any attack on any of these could be construed as an act of war.
Americans have been ahead of the pack with regards to military satellite technology until recently. Now, however, the U.S. is facing serious challenges from Russia and China. This worries not just zombie apocalypists, but also people like former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who is convinced that China, in particular, has a national interest in shutting down U.S. satellites. Indeed, Scientific American reports that a series of Chinese missile tests were conducted, the last in 2016, to shoot down objects in space (and I don’t mean asteroids).
News stories these days might lead to the belief that the main purpose of space research is to give the ultra-wealthy a joyride. The truth is that many programs are meant, if not to actually start a conflict, to give some kind of strategic advantage on the ground. Since 2013, China has been able to fire a missile 30,000 kilometers into space, the same altitude where many of our strategic satellites reside. Sending a weather satellite up is one thing; a missile is another.
The U.S., for its part, hasn’t been sitting on its laurels. Military defense satellite projects are usually kept “black,” but one, the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), was declassified in 2104 to let other nations know that we have the ability to see what they’re up to in space. The program involves a set of four satellites that can monitor or even contact objects in high orbits.
A popular literary genre, post-apocalyptic fiction, often uses aggression in space as its premise. The detonation of a nuclear warhead high up over the U.S., for example, would cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could possibly confound the power grid and electronics for years. Wars could be started in space, however, without the use of missiles and nuclear weapons. Disabling satellites by having a seemingly harmless object approach and spraying paint (paint!) on them could disable optics. A simple glancing blow could knock a satellite out of the sky. At the speed that objects travel in orbit, even a projectile the size of a chick pea could cause significant damage.
The answer is diplomacy, you say? Well, The United Nations can’t even agree on a code of ethical conduct for nations that have space programs. Scientific American reports that opposition came from, as you might expect, China and Russia, but also from places like India, Brazil, and South Africa.
What happens in space is as likely to trigger a major conflict among the world’s superpowers as any event on the ground. Even an accident, such as debris falling from space, could trigger an incident if it hits the wrong place or is misinterpreted as purposeful. The damage that could occur in a crisis could be catastrophic.
A satellite “incident” sounds like the plot to the latest apocalyptic fiction novel, but the capability for just such an event exists today. Here’s the question you must answer: If Brazil and South Africa can’t agree on limits to aggressive actions in space, what can you expect from China and Russia? As they used to say in “Star Trek”: Space is the final frontier. For the human race, the final frontier might really be final, and it’s just outside our atmosphere.