Russia’s destruction of one of its satellites on Monday served as yet another illustration of the arms race in space, which today focuses on the ability to destroy the orbiting spacecraft of rival nations.
By launching a missile from Earth, Russia pulverized one of its own satellites in a show of force described as an “irresponsible act” by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
This “shows that Russia is currently developing new weapons systems that can destroy satellites,” he said Tuesday.
As early as February 2020, an American general had made a disturbing revelation: Two Russian satellites recently put into orbit were tracking a United States spy satellite.
The potential ability of the Cosmos orbital missiles to strike USA-245, the US reconnaissance satellite, was unclear.
“This could create a dangerous situation in space,” said General Jay Raymond, commander of the US Space Force.
The incident ended, but it marked a new stage in the outer space arms race, where potentially bomb-armed satellites and laser-fired spacecraft are no longer just science fiction.
– “Star Wars” –
The militarization of the cosmos is as old as the space race itself. As soon as Sputnik went into orbit in 1957, Washington and Moscow looked for ways to arm and destroy satellites.
At first, nuclear weapons were the biggest concern. In 1967, superpowers and other countries signed the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the launch of weapons of mass destruction.
Since then, Russia, the United States, China and even India have studied ways to fight in space outside of the treaty.
Today, the competition focuses on the destruction of rival satellites, increasingly essential for armies for communication or surveillance.
In 1970, Moscow successfully tested an explosives-laden satellite that could destroy another orbiting vehicle in space.
The United States responded in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan announced his ambitious “Star Wars” defense program, promising precision-guided anti-missile missiles and satellites that emit lasers or microwaves.
Many of the technologies discussed were not practical. But in 1985, the Pentagon used a missile to destroy a satellite in a test, a milestone.
Since then, their rivals have sought to show that they have the same skills: China did it in 2007, India in 2019.
Russia had been trying for some time as well, so its successful launch on Monday did not surprise many experts.
“The Russians did not need to detonate the satellite to show that they had the capacity to do so,” said Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, a space policy specialist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
This proves that, if necessary, “Russia will not allow the United States to be the only one in control of space,” he added.
– Kamikaze satellites –
Countries are increasingly secretive about their military activities in space, but the race is such that in 2019, the year the Pentagon launched its Space Force, it estimated that Russia and China had the potential to surpass the United States.
The battle has evolved from the idea of destroying satellites with missiles or kamikaze satellites to finding ways to damage them with very powerful laser or microwave weapons.
Russia and China have developed satellites that can be manipulated to physically interfere with each other, according to Brian Chow, an independent space policy analyst.
With robotic arms, “they can track the enemy satellite and move it, or bend an antenna” to disable it, Brian Chow said.
These satellites remain few in number, but the deployment of two of them by Russia to threaten an American orbital spacecraft in 2020 shows that the technology is there.
China and the United States also have top-secret programs of small reusable winged robotic spacecraft that could be used to damage rival satellites.
Other weapons in development, this time on the ground, are intended to jam and damage satellite signals.
In 2019, the US defense intelligence agency warned that China had five laser-equipped bases on the ground capable of incapacitating enemy satellites.
“Every satellite that passes over China would be susceptible to attack,” said Brian Chow.
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