With the Silent Barker Satellites, America Is Entering a New Space Arms Race

Atlas V551 rocket ready for launch at Cape Canaveral carrying Silent Barker payload

By Sebastian Roblin,
Published by Popular Mechanics, 5 September 2023

Welcome to this cutthroat game of spy vs. spy.

The U.S. is growing worried about the increasing number of so-called inspector satellites launched into space by China and Russia that have the potential to move close to U.S. satellites, potentially spying on and even interfering with their functionality. So the U.S. is launching into space a new class of its own spy satellite called Silent Barker that’s specifically billed as being good for spying on those rival inspector satellites.

Yes, you have that right: America’s response to satellites used to spy on U.S. satellites is to send our own space spies to spy on theirs.

Perhaps fittingly, artwork for the launch evokes a 1970s era sci-fi novel about space-going werefoxes (because foxes represent spies and cunning!)

The Atlas V551 rocket launch carrying Silent Barker into geosynchronous orbit was set to take place at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:34 am on August 29, but was delayed due to Hurricane Idalia’s approach on Florida. Now it’s expected an unspecified time early in September.

An earlier launch of an Atlas V 551 rocket in January 2006 at Space Launch Complex 41 at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, this one loaded with the New Horizons space craft.
NASA Photo//Wikimedia Commons

This launch, designated NROL-107, carries multiple payloads that will assume a geosynchronous orbit 22,370 miles above the surface—meaning they complete a rotation around Earth at a largely fixed longitude in the same time the Earth’s completes a rotation. That means the satellites will return to the same spot above the Earth every 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds.

At least two more launches each with “one or more payloads” are scheduled for the program, leading to full operational capability in 2026.

The Silent Barker constellation will be operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for managing U.S. satellite intelligence assets, though the data will be feed to the Space Force’s National Space Defense Center in Colorado Springs and the Combined Space Operations Center in Vandenberg, California.

Silent Barker was first announced December 2017, and amounts to a next-generation supplement to six GSSAP inspection satellites (with more on the way) in near-geosynchronous orbit.

The Government Accountability Office estimated the program will have a total cost just shy of $1 billion, of which $283 million had already been awarded to contractors by 2021, per budget documents.

The way Pentagon officials explain it, Silent Barker’s space-based sensors will reportedly fill visibility gaps in space where the Pentagon is frustrated it can’t tell what Russian or Chinese space assets are doing due to relying primarily on ground-based sensors that can lose coverage due to time of day and bad weather. Thus the space-based Silent Barker satellites will allegedly bring “unprecedented coverage” of activity in geosynchronous orbit and also facilitate a more extensive and detailed catalogue of space objects there.

Space Forces argues this new ‘watch dog’ capacity may deter future malevolent actions in space by removing the veil of deniability as well as giving the U.S. an ability to respond rapidly to prevent tampering or damaging of its assets. Accordingly, part of the service’s deterrence strategy involves talking up Silent Barker’s existence so that Russia and China know their high-orbit space activities may be more closely monitored once constellation is deployed.

The director of the NRO told reporters at a roundtable that Silent Barker will have a capability to continuously track moving objects in geosynchronous orbit which the current GSSAP satellites implicitly lack.

But how exactly Silent Barker works, or even how many satellites it’s composed of, remains classified. Ironically, Moscow and Beijing will likely perceive, or at least decry, Silent Barker’s mysterious spying-on-the-spies capabilities as amounting to offensive intentions too. Which they, in turn, may cite in defense of their future spy satellites.

Malevolent satellite inspectors?

Despite there being little in the way of treaty restrictions on deploying non-nuclear weaponry into orbit, the major space powers have mostly observed a longstanding taboo against doing so. Instead, many of the current concerns revolve around weaponization of the seemingly innocuous inspection satellite.

Inspector satellites are designed with capability to maneuver close to other satellites to—that’s right—inspect their condition. In some cases, they carry equipment to repair or otherwise tweak objects in orbit using manipulator arms.

But this reasonable-seeming capability set also could make an inspector satellite a potentially effective tool for espionage, or worse, sabotage: able to creep close enough to a rival country’s satellite and practice some involuntary space surgery using a manipulator arm or, from a safer distance, a laser.

That could be a far more discrete and ambiguous means of affecting another state’s space assets, rather than the brutal approach of blowing up space objects with highly indiscrete anti-satellite missiles launched from the surface, scattering hundreds of hazardous fragments into orbit.

Fortunately, real kinetic space warfare has yet to happen. But Russia, China, and the U.S. are feeling jumpy when they recognize the others’ inspector satellites approaching or even chasing their own space assets. And with current gaps in space surveillance, the fear may be ‘what are the inspector satellites of rival powers doing when we can’t see them?”

A Chinese study asserts that one of the Pentagon’s GSSAP satellites flew within 6.7 miles of its Shijian-20 satellite used to test high-thrust ion propulsion and quantum communications. Meanwhile, back in 2020, a U.S. general complained about Russian satellites approaching within 100 miles of one of its own satellites. In 2018, the U.S. issued a complaint in Geneva regarding three Russian satellites that, based on their movements and circumstances of launch, appeared designed for espionage or sabotage missions.

The things is, there are currently no agreed-upon norms as to how the space assets of rival powers should interact ‘safely’ or ‘professionally’ into space. On Earth, countries begrudgingly accept the presence of each other’s spyplanes and ships as long as they remain on or over international waters. But without terrestrial borders, how close is too close in space?

Creating such rules is hardly impossible—Geneva conventions regulating biological, laser and chemical weapons have been mostly observed, and the idea of creating such rules by committee has been proposed.But none of the biggest space powers seems inclined to support formalized rules, presumably fearing their own actions in space could be constrained more than their rivals’. For example, what if a more solid ban on space-based weapons simply empowers adversaries to destroy space assets using ground-based missiles? Treaty violations in the last decade and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have sharply reduced the trust and interest in creating a new regime of arms control treaties. So for now, it is a game of orbital Kramer versus Kramer.

Atlas V 551: One of the last (and biggest) of its kind

NROL 107 will be the 98th long Atlas V medium-lift rocket system by United Launch Alliance (a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture) to launch since 2002. The extra-muscly V551 variant is the heaviest-lifting configuration of the 58.3-meter-long Atlas V, priced at $153 million per launch back in 2017. It boasts a larger 5.4 meters diameter payload fairing and is propelled by the maximum five boosters, allowing it to carry up to 20.5 tons to Low Earth Orbit, or 9.8 tons to a geostationary transfer orbit.

Atlas V 551 rocket rolled out on August 25, 2023 in preparation for launch of NROL-107 carrying the Silentbarker space surveillance system payloads for operation by the National Reconnaissance Office and U.S. Space Force.

At lift off, the V551 rockets into the sky propelled by a 1,350 tons of thrust generated by a Russian-built RD-180 motor and five 20-meter-long GEM-63 solid-fuel rocket boosters. Within two minutes the boosters are ditched, and upon exiting the atmosphere, the heat-shielding payload fairing petals off, leaving the steel Centaur III (or Common Centaur) upper-stage body encapsulated within exposed.

Eventually the Centaur itself separates, powered by an RL-10C rocket using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fuel, while 20 thrusters mounted on six pods attached to the Centaur are used for maneuvering, drawing on 340 pounds of hydrazine fuel supply.

The Silent Barker launch will be the 98th Atlas V launched since 2002, with only 18 more launches to follow as the type is succeeded by the new Vulcan Centaur heavy lift rocket using an American-built engine. This successor, however, has suffered delays to its scheduled launch, which nonetheless is expected to take place this year.

Most of the remaining Atlas V launches scheduled appear to be dedicated to Project Kuiper, a program by Amazon aiming to spend $10 billion eventually launching over 3,236 satellites to provide broadband internet to millions of people without local access. The first two prototype KuiperSats are scheduled for launch via a smaller V501 rocket at Cap Canaveral on September 26.

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