ILLUSTRATION -- An illustration shows someof the more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” that are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Much more debris -- too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions -- exists in the near-Earth space environment. Since both the debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit), an impact of even a tiny piece of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems. Mike Tsukamoto/staff; NASA; Pixabay
Photo Caption & Credits

Contesting the Space Domain

Dec. 3, 2021

Russia’s ASAT test rattled the world. The Space Force was already working on solutions.

As a derelict Soviet surveillance satellite dating from the 1980s soared hundreds of miles above the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Nov. 15, a Russian missile rocketed upward to meet it.

The Nudol anti-satellite weapon, a ballistic missile that propels a kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) into orbit, was right on target. The two-and-a-half-ton Cosmos 1408 electronic signals intelligence satellite burst into pieces on impact, spreading a cloud of 1,500 “trackable” pieces of space junk into low-Earth orbit, plus hundreds of thousands more specks too small to track.

The debris field will spread out and remain a danger to other objects, including crewed spacecraft, for years and perhaps decades to come. 

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Aboard the International Space Station, a crew of seven, including American and German astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, took cover in the space capsules that will eventually return them to Earth. They remained in the SpaceX Dragon and Russian Soyuz capsules for two hours following a NASA warning as  the ISS crossed near or through the debris field on two orbits 90 minutes apart. The second and third passes came the closest before their proximity naturally diverged because of different orbital trajectories. 

This had to have been approved at the level of Putin.

Scott Pace, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University

By Nov. 17, two days later, commercial space-object tracking firm LeoLabs said it had identified 288 trackable pieces, reporting that the number would “grow significantly” as objects “further separate from one another in their new orbits.” The company said “some objects” will continue to cross into the path of the ISS. The higher that debris scattered after impact, the longer it will remain in space, threatening to collide with something else such as the ISS. 

U.S. and spacefaring allies predictably condemned the test as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” They also wondered and speculated on Russia’s motives and timing.

WHY IT MATTERS

“We’re estimating that the probability of a hit to Dragon would be lower than the rest of the ISS,” a voice advises Air Force Col. Raja Chari. It’s a gesture of reassurance, captured in a recording posted online. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston had just warned the crew on the ISS to take cover in their capsules because their orbit was about to pass by the new debris field for the second time—this time, too close for comfort. As Chari, an F-35 test pilot, came to grips with the situation, NASA reminded him:

“Heads-up. 15 minutes to the next debris field pass.”

NASA’s crew of four had launched to space on a SpaceX Crew Dragon, only the third fully operational mission with that design. Chari and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kayla Barron, a submarine officer, along with U.S. and German civilians, had arrived just four days earlier. Two cosmonauts and another U.S. astronaut were already on board the ISS. Not far away, in a similar orbit, three Chinese taikonauts were working on board China’s Tiangong space station.

The Nudol ASAT weapon, unlike the American Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, which was designed to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles, appears purpose-built as a direct-ascent ASAT weapon, according to “Global Counterspace Capabilities—An Open Source Assessment,” a report from the Secure World Foundation in Broomfield, Colo.

The head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office Tim Flohrer put the expected effects into context, telling Space.com that the debris would require twice as many collision-avoidance maneuvers for satellite operators in coming years. He said the peak increase in required maneuvers could be “even significantly higher.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator, said in a statement that he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.” Russia’s “long and storied history in human spaceflight” had been ignored, he said, putting astronauts and Russia’s own cosmonauts at risk.

The ISS passed closely enough “near or through” the debris, according to the statement, in only its second and third passes after the test, forcing the crew to shelter in their capsules for two hours.

Canada decried the “increased risk to the sustainability [and] stability of outer space [and] human space flight.” Germany said Russia’s “irresponsible behavior carries a high risk of misjudgment and escalation” and would “impair the free and unhindered use of space for all countries for years.”

As thousands of new satellites are launched into LEO, among them small sats forming the Starlink and OneWeb internet constellations, risk could grow. Observers worry that any single collision could spark others, creating a cascading effect in which the clouds of debris multiply until, potentially they shred everything in orbit in a theoretical phenomenon known as Kessler Syndrome.

WHY NOW

Why Russia chose November 2021 to launch its test is an open question. 

“They’ve had a capability like this, for a direct-ascent ASAT, in its current form, for a long time,” said Scott Pace, former executive secretary of the National Space Council and now director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. Yet he characterized Russia’s decision to destroy one of its satellite relics as “not expected, but not a surprise.” 

Elements of the Russian government “knew exactly what would happen,” he said. “This had to have been approved at the level of Putin. There’s no way this was done by anybody below that.” 

But why Putin chose to launch now is worth wondering about, he continued. “What could possibly have been his motivations, knowing the blowback and irritation this could cause?”

Three theories are gaining traction among academics, Pace said: 

  • First, the test was a “display of strength” in “the larger geopolitical context.” Russian has been massing troops on the border with Ukraine, which may have encouraged Belarus to create a migrant crisis on the Polish border, and continues to intimidate other neighbors.
  • Second, self-doubt over whether the Nudol weapon would actually work, despite non-destructive rocket tests, may have prompted the live test. Perhaps Putin “frankly just didn’t trust the results” and wanted to see “an actual, verifiable kill.”
  • Third, the test coincided with the creation of a United Nations open-ended working group on space norms of behavior. Russia was one of only eight countries to oppose the creation of that group, which could lead to a binding space arms-control agreement. Pace said Russia and China have wanted their own binding arms-control agreements advanced but that the U.S. has acted reluctantly toward their proposals, which he said are “pretty much hypocritical and self-serving and aren’t verifiable.” 

WHAT THE SPACE FORCE IS DOING

The Russian test highlighted the vulnerability of orbital assets on which the U.S. military increasingly relies, and it dramatically demonstrated why a new U.S. Space Force research and development program is focused on defensive technologies, according to experts and military officials.

Brian Engberg, director of the Space Control Technology Branch at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said Russia’s  test showcased the kind of weaponry the Space Force will have to counter in its mission to ensure critical communication, navigation, timing, surveillance, and other capabilities to U.S. forces in combat with a peer competitor such as Russia or China. 

“Our current priorities are on establishing defensive measures and resilience for our satellite platforms,” Engberg told Air Force Magazine. Even in the midst of an attack by weapons like Russia’s Nudol, the Space Force must continue to “provide critical space-based services like communications, navigation [and] timing, operational awareness, [and] information dominance, which then enable strong offensive and defensive advantages” on land, at sea, and in the air.

Brian Weeden, an author of the Secure World Foundation’s counterspace report, said the Nudol’s kinetic kill vehicle has no warhead, containing only a guidance system to enable last-minute course corrections to steer it into the target. “At the speed the KKV is traveling in low Earth orbit, probably already moving at six or seven kilometers per second … It’s just BOOM! From launch to impact, you may have as little as five or 10 minutes.”

The destruction of a defunct Russian communication satellite scattered thousands of bits of space debris across low-Earth orbit, threatening other satellites as well as the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station. Illustration by Mike Tsukamoto/staff; Hung Quach and PIRO4D/Pixabay

Countering such a weapon is extremely difficult, given the time needed to detect the blast, communicate with the satellite, and initiate a motor burn to move it to a different orbit. “So I think it’s very, very difficult to counter that,” he said.

Making maximum use of the minimal time available to maneuver satellites away from ASAT threats is a major focus of AFRL’s research, Engberg said. This includes developing “satellite autonomy” so that, using artificial intelligence, a satellite can “make a decision about protecting its own capability when you cannot wait for a human on the ground to receive data, make a decision, and send up a command to avoid a potential threat.”

Autonomy is especially important for countering lasers or other directed-energy weapons attacking at the speed of light, Engberg said. “We anticipate there will be scenarios and threats for which a human in the loop commanding a satellite or a system of satellites from the ground will not be fast enough to defeat certain threats, especially speed-of-light threats.”

The strategic calculus embedded in the Space Force’s R&D focus on defensive capabilities is that deterrence by denial—hardening U.S. space systems—is a more productive strategy than deterrence by destruction, Weeden said, especially because the U.S. military relies more heavily on space than potential adversaries.

Engberg said the Russian test and its impact on the ISS also demonstrate the growing danger that a war in space might create. Weeden said that’s why strategists favor nonkinetic attacks on orbital assets, especially if they can be reversible.

Historically, Engberg said, “the high risk of collateral damage from offensive space weapons means no one will really benefit from escalating a [kinetic] conflict into the space domain.” For its part, Russia maintains that risk is overblown. Earlier this year, AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle cut the ribbon on a 26,000-square-foot, $12.8 million Space Warfighting Operations Research and Development lab called SWORD. The lab supports a few dozen scientists, engineers, and support staff and is part of the Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

“AFRL is not investing in offensive space capabilities,” Engberg said. “Our goal is to provide a safe flight environment [in orbit] through [domain] awareness and reliable services [to warfighters] through agility and survivability.” That includes, he added, being “prepared for irresponsible behavior.”

The U.S. has tested kinetic space weapons successfully in the past, first in 1985 with a missile launched from an F-15 and again in 2000 from a ship. The first instance demonstrated what happens in a destructive ASAT test, and the second demonstrated that doing so at a lower altitude minimized lingering debris. Weeden said it’s generally accepted that the U.S. still possesses that ability. 

“Many of us assume that existing U.S. missile defense interceptors … could be used to target satellites with basically just a software change,” Weeden said. And the U.S. may be able to destroy or interfere with satellites in other ways. “We know the U.S. has done a lot of research on technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations—getting close to other satellites—that could be used in co-orbital attacks. We know there’s a lot of research being done in lasers and other directed-energy weapons. We know the U.S. has probably the best cyber offensive capabilities in the world.

“So a lot of us assume that the U.S. has more capabilities than what they’ve revealed,” he concluded. The same might be said for both China and Russia.   

Satellites