New friend — or foe — on the way for satellites

New friend — or foe — on the way for satellites

Published
Artist conception of robotic service stations ((Photo; DARPA)

WASHINGTON — From Defense Secretary James Mattis to think-tankers and congressional military soothsayers, the need to ramp up U.S. space security is being proclaimed more and more and louder and louder.

A key first step may already be underway in one of the most successful parts of the military — DARPA, its research and development entity.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working with NASA to develop technologies that would extend the life of satellites in space, either through repairs or refueling or possibly unspecified adjustments.

The new technology would create robotic satellites — working title “service stations in orbit” — which will perform critical tasks to maintain satellites. The platform’s capabilities mean they could also sabotage enemy spacecraft in the event of space war or in advance of a ground war.

The servicing-satellite initiative began in 2016 but has gained momentum in recent months; DARPA expects to launch the satellite in 2019, according to published reports.

The high concerns about maintaining U.S. primacy in space has many urging the creation of new military service branch, to join the existing four. Others say the Air Force, for which space is now part of the domain, needs to better develop a stand-alone corps to ensure focus on the challenge.

The robots could be equipped with arms and cameras and could possibly be used in retaliation tactics such as sabotaging enemy satellites in the event of space war. Snapping the antenna from enemy satellites, pushing them to new orbits or destroying solar powering panels may be all that is needed to render them useless.

Satellites rule in today’s tech-driven world. Taking them out would crimp everything from communications to rely on warming alerts to a missile attack to running daily institutions.

The just-released National Security Strategy notes the importance of space and the threat above. “Any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing,” it reads in part.

The Pentagon maintains that China and Russia have been working on weapons meant to target U.S. satellites. Although attacking satellites is still a grey area when it comes to warfare, the Pentagon believes it will be weapons and not diplomatic protocols that will protect U.S. satellites.

The loss of even a handful of key pieces of space hardware could mean a country remains blind and vulnerable for months or years.

The 2017 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which is appointed by Congress, reported that China is very interested in shooting down U.S. satellites. The commission reported China is exploring an array of ways: a suicide satellite to collide with the target, attack with lasers from the ground or jam them with dazzling light and electronic noise, and armed spacecraft to disable satellites in space in space.

“China has pursued a robust and comprehensive array of counterspace weapons,” the report reads.  Its pursuit of these capabilities indicates a desire to threaten U.S. space infrastructure, which the Chinese military may consider useful during the initial moments of a conventional conflict with the United States in what Beijing considers its region of influence, such as North Korea, Pentagon officials said.

The new servicing-satellite will work in geosynchronous orbits, or GEO, 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface. The United States, China, and Russia have all developed so-called “inspection satellites” that can maneuver close to other spacecraft in low orbits and examine them for malfunctions. NASA is also working on a low-orbit servicing satellite.

There is irony for DARPA to be back in space. The agency was created with a national sense of urgency in February 1958 amidst one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Cold War — when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Eventually, much of its work for space was transferred to NASA, once that agency was created.

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