Tag Archives: space weapons

Space Ambition, China

china national space administration

After decades hiding deep in China’s interior, the country’s space-launch programme is preparing to go a bit more public. By the tourist town of Wenchang on the coast of the tropical island of Hainan, work is nearly complete on China’s fourth and most advanced launch facility…Secrecy remains ingrained—soldiers at a gate politely but firmly decline to say what they are guarding.

The decision to build the base on Hainan was made for technical reasons: its proximity to the equator, at a latitude of 19 degrees north, will allow rockets to take better advantage of the kick from the Earth’s rotation than is currently possible with launches from China’s other bases which were built far inland at a time of cold-war insecurity. That will allow a bigger payload for each unit of fuel—a boon for China’s space ambitions, which include taking a bigger share of the commercial satellite-launch market, putting an unmanned rover on Mars around 2020, completing a manned space station around 2022 and possibly putting a person on the moon in the coming decade, too. By 2030 China hopes to test what could be one of the world’s highest-capacity rockets, the Long March 9.have no explanation for the apparent delay. Secrecy is a difficult habit to shake off.

Excerpt from Space: Ready for launch,  Economist, Jan. 10, 2015, at 40

Space-the Wild West and the Five Eyes

A radome at RAF Menwith Hill, a site with satellite downlink capabilities believed to be used by ECHELON.  Image from wikipedia

Space is a current and future battleground without terrain, where invisible enemies conceivably could mount undetectable attacks to devastating effect if the right deterrent and defensive plans aren’t pursued now, the assistant defense secretary for global strategic affairs told a think tank audience on Sept. 17, 2013  Madelyn R. Creedon spoke to a Stimson Center gathering whose audience included analysts focused on the question of deterrence in space. The center released a publication this week titled “Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations,” presenting a number of essays examining various perspectives on space deterrence.

Creedon noted that in Defense Department parlance, deterrence is “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or the belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” In other words, she said, if deterrence is effective, an adversary has or believes he has more to lose than to gain by attacking.  Deterrence remains a core defense strategy for the United States, she added, and the nation’s nuclear deterrent is “still alive and well.”  Creedon acknowledged that one classic approach to considering space deterrence — that is, preventing potential enemies from attacking U.S. or partner satellites and other military or economic assets in space — is to try to apply lessons learned during the Cold War. Then, the United States and the Soviet Union kept an uneasy diplomatic truce and piled up enough nuclear weapons to guarantee mutually assured destruction.

But one flaw to comparing the two deterrent challenges, she said, is that an attack that disables a satellite, unlike one from a nuclear warhead that flattens a major city, doesn’t threaten a nation’s existence. Another is that the two superpowers spent decades constructing an elaborate, mirrored, deterrent Cold War architecture and protocols, while space is still, comparatively, “the Wild West.” A third is that an attack in space or cyberspace may rely on digital rather than conventional weapons, and so could occur without warning or even detection.

“If there is an attack against a space asset, it isn’t visible,” she said. “You can’t watch it on CNN, and unless you’re directly affected by the capability that the space assets provide, you’re probably completely oblivious that the attack happened.”

She said DOD is developing and implementing what safeguards it can implement in space using four mutually supportive elements to deter others from taking action against U.S. assets:

— Working to internationalize norms and establish a code of conduct to enhance stability;

— Building coalitions to enhance security;

— Adding resilience to U.S. space architectures; and

— Preparing for an attack on U.S. and allied space assets using defenses “not necessarily in space.”

“We believe this four-element approach … will bolster deterrence,” Creedon said.

The department is working with the State Department and international partners to define elements of good behavior in space, she said. “States must remain committed to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, security and stability of the outer-space environment,” she added.  Creedon said work is underway to build deterrent coalitions and increase space awareness. She said the “Five Eyes” nations, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are extending their intelligence cooperation to expand their collective space situational awareness

The United States is meanwhile working to lower the benefit to potential attackers by employing more satellites, participating in satellite constellations with other countries and purchasing payload space on commercial satellites when feasible.  Creedon said the U.S. approach to space deterrence is similar to its strategy in any domain: take “prudent preparations to survive, and to operate through, and, hopefully, prevail in any conflict.”

By Karen Parrish, Official Describes Evolution of Space Deterrence, American Forces Press Service, Sept. 19, 2013

Space Weapons and Space Law

moon

“Policy, law and understanding of the threat to space is lagging behind the reality of what is out there,” warned Mark Roberts, a former Ministry of Defence official who was in charge of government space policy and the UK’s “offensive cyber portfolio”.….

The disabling of satellites would have a disastrous impact on society, knocking out GPS navigation systems and time signals. Banks, telecommunications, power and many infrastructures could fail, Roberts told the conference….Agreements such as the 1967 Outer Space treaty and the 1979 Moon treaty are supposed to control the arms race in space. Some states have signed but not ratified them, said Maria Pozza, research fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at Cambridge University.  Existing treaties do not specify where air space ends and outer space begins – although 100km (62 miles) above the Earth is becoming the accepted limit.

The Navstar constellation of satellites was used to provide surveillance of Iraq during the Gulf war in 1991. Was that, asked Pozza, an aggressive use of space, a “force-multiplier”? Satellites may have also been used to photograph and locate al-Qaida bases, Osama bin Laden or even assess future strikes against Syria.

The Chinese government has recently moved to support a 2012 EU code of conduct for space development, which, Pozza said, was a softer law. The draft Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space treaty has not yet been agreed. “Are we dismissing the possibility of a hard law or giving it a good chance?” Pozza asked.

The Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 that destroyed a defunct orbiting vehicle and showered debris across near Earth orbits. Other satellites have been jammed by strong radio signals. BBC transmissions to Iran were disrupted during this year’s elections through ground signals ostensibly sent from Syria.

In 2011, hackers gained control of the Terra Eos and Landsat satellites, Roberts said. The orbiting stations were not damaged. “The threat can now be from a laptop in someone’s bedroom,” he added.

Professor Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the UK Space Agency, said scientists were now exploring the possibility of robotic systems that grapple with and bring down disused satellites or laser weapons to clear away debris in orbit.  Both technologies, he pointed out, had a potential dual use as military weapons. 3D printing technologies would, furthermore, allow satellite operators to develop new hardware remotely in space.

The UK is formulating its space security policy, group captain Martin Johnson, deputy head of space policy at the MoD, said. Fylingdales, the Yorkshire monitoring station, has been cooperating for 50 years with the USA to enhance “space awareness” and early warning systems. The UK, Johnson said, was now working with the EU to develop a complementary space monitoring system.

Excerpt, Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, The Guardian, Sept. 11, 2013

The Third X-37B Space Drone

An experimental robotic space plane developed for the Air Force is slated to be launched Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2012) from Cape Canaveral, Fla., fueling an ongoing mystery about its hush-hush payload and overall mission.  Air Force officials offered few details about the mission. They said the unmanned space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, simply provides a way to test technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

See also “Mystery” of X-37B

This is the third time that the Air Force will send an X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into orbit.   The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and landed 224 days later on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara. The second X-37B spent 469 days in space.  The only information the government released was when the space plane was launched and when it returned.

Because of its clandestine nature, some industry analysts say it could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe.  But the Pentagon has repeatedly said the X-37B is simply a “test bed” for other technologies.

The X-37B is about 29 feet long, about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that are about 15 feet from tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and is powered by unfolding solar panels. It is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days.  The spacecraft was built in tight secrecy by Boeing Co.’s Space and Intelligence Systems unit in Huntington Beach. Engineering work was done at the company’s facilities in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. Other components were supplied by its satellite-making plant in El Segundo.

Weather permitting, the plane is set to be launched Tuesday atop a 19-story Atlas V rocket, which will lift the spacecraft into orbit inside the nosecone. Once in orbit, the X-37B will emerge for its estimated nine-month journey.

By W.J. Hennigan, Another secretive space drone is set for launch, LA Times, Dec. 11, 2012

How to Unambiguously Identify Zooming Satellites

U.S. military observers can have trouble identifying satellites whizzing overheard in Earth’s crowded space lanes. A new Pentagon effort aims to find the unique visual signatures of individual satellites for quick identification, regardless of whether such satellites belong to friend or foe. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes such signatures — remotely seen from ground or space sensors — could even help identify different satellites made by the same manufacturer. But it’s not easy. Satellites’ orbits may often change between overhead passes, and it’s getting more difficult to spot individual satellites in a space becoming more crowded with vehicles, satellites and pieces of leftover space junk.

The DARPA solicitation for an innovative solution from small business, issued April 27, noted, “Some objects are frequently lost, and sometimes serendipitously reacquired without recognition of its previous catalog existence, unless manpower-intensive analysis intervenes.”Any effort to reliably track “active payloads and tumbling objects” and the like would focus on finding each satellite’s physical or “operational” signatures (perhaps signals or movements unique to a certain satellite). Timeliness and speed would be crucial for helping military observers quickly identify satellites that had gone missing and possibly reappeared.

The technology needed here likely would involve some sort of software algorithms that can do automated identification based on satellite signatures. Once such software is created, DARPA envisions passing the testing along to the Joint Space Operations Center, the U.S. military’s center for coordinating space forces and directing space power to support global operations.  DARPA’s focus on satellites also includes the recently launched “SeeMe” effort to deploy dozens of cheap satellites that can provide overhead battlefield surveillance for the U.S. military. The Pentagon afency also has the ongoing “Phoenix” project to try to cannibalize dead satellites and use the parts for new “Frankenstein” satellites.

Military wants to know: Whose satellites are those?, MSNBC.com, May, 3, 2012

See also http://www.dodsbir.net/sitis/display_topic.asp?Bookmark=42609

The “Mystery” of X-37B

Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab.The military’s mysterious, experimental unmanned space plane is doing such a good job that its mission has been extended indefinitely–if only anyone knew what its mission was.  Details on the mission involving the X-37B are virtually nonexistent. The official U.S. Air Force fact sheet says the vehicle is being used as an “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”

In November, the Air Force announced that the X-37B’s mission was being extended beyond its planned 270 days. At a breakfast with reporters Thursday, General William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said the mission, whatever it is, has been extended indefinitely.”We don’t have an exact re-entry date for it, but we’ve had a successful mission and we’re very happy with its performance,” he said. “That vehicle is performing a great service.”

Asked to give adjectives for the X-37B, he offered up “spectacular,” and “game-changing.”  In January, Spaceflight magazine reported that the vehicle is closely following the orbit of China’s spacelab, Tiangong-1, leading the magazine to suspect that the X-37B is spying on that satellite.  “Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor David Baker told the BBC in January. China is expected to send manned missions to Tiangong-1 later this year.Other experts have refuted Baker’s claims, speculating that the X-37B could be used to covertly deploy smaller satellites, while conspiracy theorists have wondered if the X-37B could deliver weapons from space.

Here’s what is known about the X-37B: The 29-foot ship was built in a Huntington Beach, Calif., lab by Boeing. It looks like a miniature, solar-powered version of a space shuttle, and it’s the second “orbital test vehicle” the military has launched into space–the first was launched in 2010. The Air Force calls it the “newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” and it has the ability to land autonomously. Technologies being tested “include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.”

Beyond that, the X-37B has been shrouded in secrecy–from its mission to its budget. Thursday, Shelton repeatedly dodged questions about what the military is up to with the ship.”I think there’s a good reason to keep [the budget of the X-37B] as quiet as we possibly can,” he said. “If you reveal budgets, you sometimes reveal the capabilities, the amount of technology inserted into a program. It’s a good, strategic national security decision

Jason Koebler, Military’s Secret ‘Space Plane’ Mission Extended Indefinitely: Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab,chicagotribune.com, May 26, 2012

The Black Budget and its Weapons

The spaceship, X-37B, dubbed a ‘secret space warplane’ by the Iranians, has been in orbit since March 5, although the mission and its cargo are on a need-to-know basis. “On-orbit experimentation is continuing,” Air Force Major Tracy Bunko, a spokesperson for the secretary of the Air Force, told Spaceflight Now. “Though we cannot predict when that will be complete, we are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process.” The X-37B is a black-budget-funded, unmanned mini-shuttle whose exact purposes are unknown.  US officials in charge of the winged, reusable craft say its a good way of getting new techs into space quickly because you don’t need to build a satellite to take them. They add that because the planes are reusable, they can test new gadgets and if they don’t work, you’re not writing off a billion- or million-dollar satellite.

Excerpt, Brid-Aine Parnell, Clandestine US ‘space warplane’ extends orbital mission, The Register, Dec. 1, 2011

Weapons Faster than the Speed of Sound

The U.S. Army hypersonic weapon prototype streaked across the Pacific Ocean at several times the speed of sound today (Nov. 17, 2011) in a flawless test flight. The success could pave the way for a new military capability to strike targets anywhere on Earth in as little as an hour.  Such a hypersonic weapon concept flies at a relatively flat trajectory within the atmosphere, rather than soaring up toward space like a ballistic missile and eventually coming back down. Hypersonic speed is defined as being at least five times the speed of sound (3,805 mph, or 6,124 kph, at sea level).

The Army’s success today built upon lessons learned from two hypersonic test flights carried out by the Pentagon’s research arm, called DARPA, in April 2010 and August 2011. The flight took less than half an hour, Army officials said.  The Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon launched aboard a three-stage booster system from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai in Hawaii at 6:30 AM ET, deployed for its hypersonic glide, and eventually splashed down in the Reagan Test Site located near the Kwajalein Atoll.

Pentagon officials kept a careful watch on the flight test from space, air, sea and ground. That allowed them to collect data about aerodynamics, navigation, guidance, and control performance, as well as thermal protection technologies meant to shrug off intense heat during hypersonic flight.  Such success may provide some consolation to DARPA, given that its Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) experienced problems its two test flights that led to early crashes. HTV-2 reached a speed of Mach 20 during its latest test in August.

The Air Force has also tested its own X-51A Waverider vehicle, most recently on June 13, as an experimental platform for an air-breathing scramjet engine. During the latest test, the X-51A Waverider reached hypersonic speeds of at least Mach 5 before it failed to switch over to its main fuel source.

Having several hypersonic projects resembles the early days of U.S. rocket and missile development, when the Army and Air Force competed to get their rockets off the ground. But any success in the hypersonic realm seems likely to benefit the U.S. military’s unified goal for a Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapon designed to speedily attack targets around the world.

Jeremy Hsu, U.S. Army Launches Hypersonic Weapon Test Flight, SPACE.com, Nov. 17, 2011

Secret Space Weapons and More

NASA has done plenty of work for the Pentagon. But America’s armed forces maintain a separate space programme of their own, largely out of the public eye. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, it is thought that the military space budget has matched or exceeded NASA’s every year since 1982.   All the signs are that it is roaring ahead. The air force’s public space budget (as opposed to the secret part) will increase by nearly 10% next year, to $8.7 billion, with much of it going on a new generation of rockets. Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive outfit that runs America’s spy satellites, announced in 2010 that his agency was embarking on “the most aggressive launch schedule…undertaken in the last 25 years”.

Much of the money goes on satellites—spy satellites for keeping tabs on other countries, communications satellites for soldiers to talk to each other, and even the Global Positioning System satellites, designed to guide soldiers and bombs to their targets, and now expanded to aid civilian navigation.

But there are more exotic programmes. The air force runs one for anti-satellite warfare, designed to destroy or disable enemy birds. Another includes experimental aircraft, such as the X-37, a cut-down, unmanned descendant of the space shuttle. The air force will not say what the X-37 is for….Other nations are flexing their muscles. American commanders report that China regularly fires powerful lasers into the sky, demonstrating their ability to dazzle or blind satellites. In 2007 a Chinese missile destroyed an old weather satellite, creating a huge field of orbiting debris. Afterwards, Russia spoke publicly about its anti-satellite weapons. This is one space race that is well under way.

The military uses of space, Spooks in orbit, Economist, July 2, 2011, at 68

The Joys and Perils of Puberty: China, Nationalism and Space

China’s grand ambitions extend literally to the moon, with the country now embarked on a multi-pronged program to establish its own global navigational system, launch a space laboratory and put a Chinese astronaut on the moon within the next decade. The Obama administration views space as ripe territory for cooperation with China. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has called it one of four potential areas of “strategic dialogue,” along with cybersecurity, missile defense and nuclear weapons. And President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed after their White House summit last week to “deepen dialogue and exchanges” in the field.

But as China ramps up its space initiatives, the diplomatic talk of cooperation has so far found little traction. The Chinese leadership has shown scant interest in opening up the most sensitive details of its program, much of which is controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  At the same time, Chinese scientists and space officials say that Washington’s wariness of China’s intentions in space, as well as U.S. bans on some high-technology exports, makes cooperation problematic.

For now, the U.S.-China relationship in space appears to mirror the one on Earth – a still-dominant but fading superpower facing a new and ambitious rival, with suspicion on both sides.  “What you have are two major powers, both of whom use space for military, civilian and commercial purposes,” said Dean Cheng, a researcher with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and an expert on the Chinese military and space program.

NASA’s human spaceflight program has been in flux in recent years, fueling particular concern among some U.S. observers about the challenge posed by China’s initiatives in that area.  There is “a lot of very wary, careful, mutual watching,” Cheng said.  Song Xiaojun, a military expert and commentator on China’s CCTV, said that substantial cooperation in the space field is impossible without mutual trust. Achieving that, he said, “depends on whether the U.S. can put away its pride and treat China as a partner to cooperate on equal terms. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, since the U.S. is experiencing menopause while China is going through puberty.”

But while China may still be an adolescent in terms of space exploration – launching its first astronaut in 2003 – it has made some notable strides in recent months and years, and plans seem on track for some major breakthroughs.  On the day Hu left for his U.S. trip, Chinese news media reported the inauguration of a new program to train astronauts – called taikonauts here – for eventual deployment to the first Chinese space station, planned for 2015. As part of the project, two launches are planned for this year, that of an unmanned space module, called Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” by summer, and later an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft that will attempt to dock with it.

On a separate track, China is also working through a three-stage process for carrying out its first manned moon landing. The first stage was completed in October with the successful launch of a Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter. In 2012 or 2013, an unmanned landing craft is scheduled to take a rover to the moon to collect rock and soil samples. By 2020, according to the plan, a taikonaut could land on the moon.

Yet a third track is devoted to the development of a Chinese global navigational system, called Beidou, or “Compass,” to challenge the current supremacy of the American global positioning system, or GPS. Beidou is scheduled to provide satellite navigation services to the Asia-Pacific region next year and to be fully global by 2020.

Chinese academics involved in the space program said Beidou is crucial for China’s military. Without its own navigational system, Chinese troops and naval vessels must rely almost exclusively on the American GPS system, which could be manipulated or blocked in case of a conflict.  The new system “can cover the civilian and military sides,” said Xu Shijie, a professor of astronautics at Beihang University in Beijing. “For the military side, it’s more urgent.”

Xu, who heads a space research team, acknowledged that even some Chinese might question the government’s decision to fund a costly space program at a time when there are other pressing concerns, such as developing the country’s western provinces to bring living standards and incomes there into line with those in the more prosperous east.  But he called the space program “a long-term investment,” with the potential for beneficial spillover effects on the civilian economy. “The government is concerned with social welfare issues,” Xu said. “But a scientist is also trying to look 20 years down the road.”

There is also the matter of prestige. As with other grandiose projects – high-speed rail, the world’s biggest airport in Beijing, staging the 2008 Olympics – China’s Communist leaders view the space program as a way to show citizens that they can produce successes, thus fostering patriotism and support for the party’s continued rule.

“National pride will increase,” Xu said. “It’s a selling point used by leading scientists.”  As part of the effort to expand public awareness of and excitement about the space program, the government broke ground in December for a 3,000-acre space-launch center and theme park on the southern island of Hainan, modeled after the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

When the center opens in 2014, the public will be able to watch rocket launches there from an elevated platform. The adjacent Hainan Space Park, meanwhile, will be divided into four sections, replicating the moon, the sun, Mars and Earth. “We want to combine tourism with education,” said Liu Xianbo, an official with China Aerospace International Holdings, which is building the theme park.

Hainan offers several advantages as a launch site, compared with China’s existing, secrecy-cloaked sites in sparsely populated areas of Shanxi province, Sichuan and the Gobi Desert. It is already a major tourist destination. Its southern location, closer to the equator, maximizes the effects of Earth’s rotation, boosting rocket thrust. And in the event of a mishap, launches over water, rather than land, would make rescues easier.  Hainan also has another advantage: Parts of the island are already zoned for military use under the PLA’s control.  China’s space program has a civilian component, under the China National Space Administration, but it is run primarily by the military. That could make enhanced cooperation with the United States difficult – and not just from the Chinese side.

Last fall, when NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. visited China to explore areas where the two countries could cooperate in space, two senior Republican members of Congress – Reps. Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and John Abney Culberson (Tex.) – wrote to Bolden beforehand to protest, saying they had “serious concerns about the nature and goals of China’s space program” and warning that “China’s intentions for its space program are questionable at best.”  Since Republicans won control of the House in November’s elections, Wolf now chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, which oversees NASA’s budget, and Culberson is a senior subcommittee member.

Keith B. Richburg, As China eyes the stars, U.S. watches warily, Washington Post, January 23, 2011, at A12