The 21st century Star Wars

Modern life relies on satellite sytems but they are alarmingly vulnerable to attack as they orbit the Earth. Patricia Lewis explains why defending them from hostile forces is now a primary concern for states

Humanity’s dependence on space-based objects has rocketed since the world’s first artificial satellite was launched in 1957. Some 60 countries and 20 organizations own one or more space-based platforms and there are over 1,300 currently operational satellites orbiting the planet. Space technologies are increasingly available to all countries, rich or poor, and now to private citizens and international organizations – particularly in the realm of ultra-small ‘nano-satellites’. 

Space technology has shown itself to be an equalizer and spur for global economic development. Satellites are used for communications, environmental and weather observation, navigation, military targeting, and scientific research, from cellular biology through to astrophysics. 

Almost every country in the world is now dependent on satellites for a large part of their critical infrastructure. Changes to landmass, coastal waters, forests, deserts, urban environments are all tracked by satellites. Weather predictions have become far more accurate thanks to the use of meteorological satellites. 

And internet connectivity, mobile phone use and telecommunications are now practical and cost-effective for a whole range of countries that were previously unable to create the infrastructure. 

Space technologies have changed our world for the better. Keeping space safe and secure is vital for the future of economic development, the alleviation of poverty and the management of earth’s resources. 

From the beginning of space flight, national military missions were entwined with the civil, peaceful uses of outer space. For example, the rockets that are used to launch satellites into orbit are the same as the long-range missiles deployed to deliver nuclear warheads across the continents. Navigational data is used for missile guidance and targeting. Earth observation imaging is not only vital for environmental monitoring; it is also used to spy on enemy military activities and provide information for land, sea and air forces’ situational awareness and missile accuracy.  

As the militarization of outer space has developed so have the prospects for its weaponization. From anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) to President Reagan’s vision of ‘Star Wars’ and the Strategic Defense Initiative, and now the prospect of cyber-attack on satellites, fears are growing that weapons may become a permanent feature of space and undermine the many cooperative ventures such as the International Space Station. 

Orbital space debris is a major problem. NASA tracks  more than 500,000 pieces of orbital debris and there are millions more pieces too small to track – each could do serious damage to the global network of satellites and is a constant threat to the space station. Any damage then leads to further damage in a cascade of debris collisions. Existing debris has been caused by accidental collisions or by ASAT tests and it remains in orbit indefinitely. The problem is growing so fast that a number of countries are developing ingenious tools to vacuum up or grab the debris. One problem is how satellite operators could distinguish between a tool to clean up debris and a tool to destroy satellites and how clean-up operations could distinguish between debris and the ultra small ‘nano-satellites’. Indeed, Vitaly Adushkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences recently warned that space debris could ‘provoke political or even armed conflict ... as the owner of an impacted and destroyed satellite could hardly quickly determine the real cause of the accident.’

In order to limit the military use and maximize the peaceful uses of outer space, governments developed a set of structures to manage the uses of space and prevent – what many see as inevitable – a future war in which space systems are attacked from the ground or sea and weapons are placed in space that attack space and ground targets. 

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was established by the General Assembly in 1958 to address the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity, for peace, security and development and is the international forum for the development of international space law. In addition, the UN Secretary-General established a group of governmental experts that agreed a set of substantive transparency and confidence-building measures for outer space. Likewise, the EU has established a process for developing an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, designed to enhance the safety, security and sustainability of activities in outer space.

Although a great deal has been achieved, there are new threats on the horizon. All activity that uses electronic mapping, navigation and timing tools relies on the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). Almost all of the world’s aircraft, maritime vessels, land-transport networks, energy grids, financial transactions – and, of course, military systems including long-range missiles – are now highly dependent on data provided by such systems. 

Satellites and their command stations on the ground are essentially space-based cyber-platforms and so vulnerable to cyber-attack; many of the older satellites have no cyber-security defences at all. Some states are developing the capabilities to carry out cyber-attacks on satellites and the most serious concerns are: a) jamming and spoofing digital GNSS data that could feed fake navigational data to planes or ships resulting in confusion and collisions; and b) taking physical control of a satellite that could be switched off or manoeuvred into the pathway of another satellite, destroying both. 

The world now depends so heavily on space and in particular on GNSS data for daily activities that there is an urgent need for international collaboration on cyber-security in space – in conjunction with the action being taken on orbital debris clean-up – so that the benefits that space provides will be available and sustainable for the long-term.

Share: