The Wild West of Fear: how states scare each other in space

image from NASA

It was May 2014 when a small team of American airmen monitoring a Russian satellite launch saw something they had never seen before. An object the team thought was a piece of debris from the launch suddenly came to life.  “The one object that we assumed was a piece of debris started to maneuver in close proximity to the (rocket) booster,” recalled Lt. Gen. David Buck …at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Buck… said the deliberate maneuvers the mystery object made close to the rocket’s booster were a red flag. Getting that close to another object in space is a complex feat, as objects can move as fast as 17,500 miles per hour….[W]hat the US military was witnessing was not debris at all, but instead a satellite with a dangerous capability, one that could allow it to cozy up next to another satellite and potentially destroy it….

The Russian satellite is officially known as Kosmos 2499 but it has been given a more daunting nickname: “kamikaze,” a spacecraft expressly designed to maneuver up close to another satellite to disable or destroy it. In other words, it’s a satellite that could go on the attack.Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former commander of Air Force space command, likened the satellite to a space Trojan horse. “You could have something on orbit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a communications satellite, when in actuality, it is also a weapon,” said Shelton.

Kosmos 2499 is far from the only threat. In September 2014, just a few months after Kosmos was placed in orbit, Russia launched an additional satellite named Luch with both maneuvering and spying capabilities.  “This satellite has been maneuvering through geosynchronous space … cozying up close to various communications satellites, listening to what traffic is flowing over those,” said Paul Graziani, CEO of civilian satellite tracker Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI).
Over the course of a year, Graziani’s team has watched as Luch parked itself next to three US commercial satellites and one European satellite. The Russians flew the satellite close enough to collect both civilian and, possibly, sensitive military information.  Graziani was charged with delivering the bad news to US-owned commercial satellite company Intelsat…

“If the operators of this spacecraft so chose, they could direct it to actually hit another spacecraft,” said Graziani.  Like Kosmos, Luch’s ability to maneuver has the potential to make it into a satellite killer.

 Launched in 2013, the Shiyan, meaning “experiment” in Chinese, was “experimenting” shadowing the smaller satellite, according to AGI. But then something unexpected happened: The smaller satellite repeatedly disappeared and then reappeared on their screens.“We saw the approach, we saw the larger spacecraft come close to the smaller spacecraft, and then we no longer saw the smaller spacecraft,” said Graziani.
The only reasonable explanation, experts say, is that the Shiyan has a robotic arm that was repeatedly grabbing and then releasing its smaller partner.  The Chinese government acknowledged the satellite’s robotic arm, saying the satellite is “mainly used in space debris observation,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

But space watchers like Graziani see a more sinister application.  “You could grab and hold of a satellite and maneuver it out of its mission,” said Graziani  If true, it would be a new threatening capability, allowing the Shiyan to essentially kidnap another satellite….

Lasers:  “You can aim a laser at a satellite’s sensor and try to make it hard to see,” said Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes.”With power dialed up high that same laser could permanently fry the satellite’s sensor. But “very expensive and important satellites should have shutters” to block this kind of threat, said Grego, who considers these types of activities more of a nuisance than a space attack.

Space drone: Moving further into the realm of science fiction, the US military has developed the first space drone, the X-37BBearing a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, the drone is officially a reusable spacecraft for carrying payloads into space…Its other missions are classified, but the drone’s maneuverability, payload space and ability to stay in orbit for hundreds of days have space watchers and countries like Russia and China wondering whether the X-37B would one day be used as a space fighter jet,

Excerpts from Jim Sciutto and Jennifer Rizzo War in space: Kamikazes, kidnapper satellites and lasers, CNN, Nov. 29, 2016

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