How to fight a war in space (and get away with it)

(3DSculptor/Getty Images) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

By Niall Firth,
Published by MIT Technology Review, 26 June 2019

Satellites are so crucial that attacking them could be seen as an act of war. The bad news is, it may have already happened.

In March, India became only the fourth country in the world—after Russia, the US, and China—to successfully destroy a satellite in orbit. Mission Shakti, as it was called, was a demonstration of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT)—or in plain English, a missile launched from the ground. Typically this type of ASAT has a “kill vehicle,” essentially a chunk of metal with its own guidance system, mounted on top of a ballistic missile. Shortly after the missile leaves the atmosphere, the kill vehicle detaches from it and makes small course corrections as it approaches the target. No explosives are needed; at orbital speeds, kinetic energy does the damage.

The idea of shooting down satellites has been around as long as satellites have. The first (failed) ASAT test, by the US, was back in 1958, less than a year after the launch of Sputnik. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviets both developed sophisticated anti-satellite weaponry. The US had missiles that could be launched from fighter jets (successfully tested in 1985) as well as nuclear-tipped missiles capable of obliterating enemy satellites. China’s own first successful ASAT test was in 2007.

Despite the posturing, no nation has yet destroyed another’s satellite—mainly because most of the countries that can do it are also nuclear powers. But as satellites become more intertwined with every aspect of civilian life and military operations, the chances are increasing that someone, somewhere will decide that attacking a satellite is worth the risk—and just possibly trigger the world’s first full-blown space war. 

In at least some sense, the superpowers have been conducting space war almost since the days of Sputnik, using satellites to spy on enemy movements and to coordinate their own forces. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviets used space to watch for incoming nuclear attacks and to marshal nuclear weapons. It was an era when the first move in space could only be the prelude to a nuclear attack.

See: Original Article