What would your life be like without your cell telephone or GPS or Internet or satellite television? Could we function as a society?
Imagine satellites crashing in space. Colliding with each other. Bouncing and banging like billiard balls. The first one smacks a second which cracks a third that whacks a fourth and on and on. Could it happen? Yes. Should we worry? Yes! Why? Our world depends on satellites.
There is not as much space up in space as you think. According to NASA, there are currently around 22,000 objects in orbit that are big enough for officials on the ground to track and countless more smaller ones that could do damage to human-carrying spaceships and valuable satellites. Overall, it is estimated that there are as many as 370,000 pieces of space junk floating in Earth’s orbit, travelling at speeds of up to 22,000 mph. The amount of space junk orbiting Earth has reached a tipping point.
How did all of this space junk and clutter arrive in the atmosphere surrounding us? Well, accidents do happen. For example, In February 2007, a Russian Briz-M booster stage exploded in orbit over South Australia. The booster had been carrying an Arabsat-4A communication satellite but malfunctioned before it could use all of its propellant creating a cloud of space debris or junk.
But as I learned recently while researching to write a military exercise scenario, one major source of debris is the result of the testing of anti-satellite weapons carried out by the US and Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. That testing of anti-satellite weapons stopped for a while, but now it is back and worse than before. In 2007, for example, China destroyed one of its own satellites in its first successful anti-satellite weapons test, an exercise that produced thousands of particles in Earth’s orbit and threatened hundreds of spacecraft. And this is the development that should worry us all.
Russia and China are currently developing anti-satellite weapons systems, which could disrupt operations by the militaries of their adversaries (like the US) and create debris clouds that threaten all satellites and spacecraft. Both nations have already tested their versions of direct ascent anti-satellite missiles. Also in 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites in its first successful anti-satellite weapons test, an exercise that produced thousands of particles in Earth’s orbit and threatened hundreds of spacecraft. Gen. John Hyten, the commander of Air Force Space Command, recently reported that Russia and China’s construction of “kinetic energy anti-satellite weapons” poses long-term problems for space travel. “It creates an environment that will be there for decades, if not centuries,” he said. “And you can’t get rid of it.”
Thus, creating space junk and debris by exploding satellites in space could be the battles of the next war. It will be a battle we will never actually see or hear, but it will be just as destructive to our society as any war. And just as with nuclear weapons, the fact that the US can destroy Russia’s or China’s satellites and Russia or China can destroy US satellites deters it from happening.
So, the next time you look up into the sky think about the importance to your life of those things that you cannot see, and those things you hope you never see.