Space is no longer the frontier, it’s the Wild West.
As the area around Earth fills up with more and more material, the once limitless volume has started to look pretty crowded. The U.S. military increasingly sees that crowding as a national security concern.
For decades the only satellites in near-Earth orbit were national, and mostly U.S. and Soviet owned. As launch capabilities became accessible to private enterprise, the volume rose. Today, there are more than 1,100 active government and private satellites and 2,600 zombie satellites still swirling around.
If a country gets itchy trigger fingers, what could happen to all that material up there? Think about all the Westerns you’ve seen, and how even one small thing can escalate into full-blown gunfight. And it just continues from there, cascading into an increasingly chaotic situation.
In space terms, shooting a satellite can result in what is known as the Kessler syndrome, or an ablation cascade. Think about the disaster Sandra Bullock’s character faced in Gravity. A missile strikes a satellite, setting off a cascade of fragments colliding at high speed with all the other satellites, sending more and more fragments flying around the Earth. Depending on the location of the initial impact, the debris could effectively block all space-based capabilities for years, or generations.
Near-Earth orbit is currently (probably) not quite crowded enough to create that massive a cascade, thankfully. How do we know? In 2007, China actually shot down one of its own satellites, generating enough debris that a NASA report that year found the fragments from that destruction accounted for 17 percent of all cataloged objects in orbit.
In 2014, the European Space Agency reported over 700,000 dangerous items in Earth’s orbit. And in 2012, the International Space Station crew had to take refuge in escape capsules because of a near miss by a large piece of an old Russian rocket.
But that’s space, and we’re on the ground, so why should we care?
We all take for granted the ability to pull an incredibly powerful computer from our pockets (the Apollo Guidance Computer had 4kB of memory and a 1MHz processor; the Apple iPhone 5S has 64GB and 1.3GHz) and use it to pinpoint our location to within meters using GPS satellites (owned by the U.S. Air Force). Using that computer, you can use an app to connect to anywhere on the planet in milliseconds, using a different set of satellites.
The militaries of the major powers all have additional, even more powerful tools. At the 2015 GEOINT symposium, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work described how the U.S. can see how deep a ship sits in the ocean to determine its cargo. If a Russian soldier posts photos to social media that appear to show him inside Ukraine, the U.S. can immediately use surveillance satellites to pinpoint his location.
Cold War space systems “provide us with the instant ability to set up theater-wide guided munition battle networks — that is, smart weapons we can employ across the entire range and depth of the theater enabled by space-based capabilities,” Work said.
What happens if those satellites are disabled or destroyed?
Even more important than the loss of the operational high ground, you won’t be able to download the latest Taylor Swift song (assuming she licenses it to anyone online in the first place). Many of the conveniences we take as part of modern life simply disappear.
Since the end of the cold war, the U.S. has had a “virtual sanctuary in space,” Work said. “The next 25 years is going to look a lot different.” The historic superiority of the U.S. in space will be eroded, resulting from a new push in technological capabilities from Russia and China. The U.S., meanwhile, has pulled back on some of its spending on new space technology.
What does that mean for U.S. defense and space strategy?
More money is needed, to start. The 2015 budget request from the White House contains an increase in the spending on space defense and technology. From DOD space programs in general to an increase in Navy spending on satellite communications to a “space fence” to help track even small objects in orbit, the budget adds billions of dollars to current spending.
An April 2015 60 Minutes report estimates that while the Pentagon nominally spends $10 billion a year on space, the real cost may be more than $25 billion. The Pentagon is also opening new central space command center as part of a $5 billion increase in yearly space security.
As the modern space race accelerates, if the U.S. wants to maintain its edge, that amount will likely skyrocket.