Wed. Sep 28th, 2022
Mission Shakti anti-satellite weapons are on display during Republic Day Parade on January 26, 2020 in New Delhi, India.
enlarge Mission Shakti anti-satellite weapons are on display during Republic Day Parade on January 26, 2020 in New Delhi, India.

Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images

The creation of the US Space Force has sparked all sorts of fanciful ideas about space combat. Will military satellites behave like X-wings and Tie Fighters, flying around and firing at each other? Or maybe bigger ships will be comparable to the USS Company firing photon torpedoes at enemy warbirds?

Barely. But even those with more realistic expectations of what could happen as nations go to war in space — perhaps satellites using orbital kinetic weapons to attack other satellites? – may not fully appreciate the physics of space battles. That’s the conclusion of a new report exploring what’s physically and practically possible when it comes to space combat.

Published by The Aerospace Corporation, The physics of space warfare: how orbital dynamics constrain space-to-space engagement explains several basic concepts likely to apply to space combat in the near future. Any physical limitations suggest that fights should be planned well in advance.

Unlike a war on Earth, which typically involves an effort of opposing forces to dominate a physical location, satellites in orbit do not occupy a single location. Therefore, write the report’s authors, Rebecca Reesman and James Wilson, mastering space does not necessarily mean physically conquering sectors of space.

Control of the high ground includes reducing or eliminating hostile satellite capabilities, while ensuring that one retains the ability to freely exploit one’s own space capabilities for communications, navigation, observation, and all the other increasingly essential ways in which militaries rely on space.

In thinking about how to control space, the authors explain the ways in which space battles are counterintuitive for policymakers and strategists.

  • Satellites move fast, but predictably: Satellites in commonly used circular orbits move at speeds between 3 km/s and 8 km/s, depending on their height. In contrast, an average bullet travels only about 0.75 km/s. They’re here, then gone.
  • The space is big: The volume of space between low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit is about 200 trillion cubic kilometers. That is 190 times the volume of the Earth.
  • time is everything: Within the confines of the atmosphere, aircraft, tanks, and ships can nominally move in any direction. Satellites don’t have that freedom. Due to the Earth’s gravitational pull, satellites always move in a circular or elliptical path, constantly in free fall around the Earth. Getting two satellites in the same place is not intuitive. Therefore, it requires careful planning and perfect timing.
  • Satellites maneuver slowly: While satellites move fast, space is vast, making targeted maneuvers seem relatively slow. Once in orbit, a satellite needs time and a large amount of delta-V to perform phasing maneuvers.

Given all this, space battles will require maneuvers and actions to be planned well in advance, Reesman said in an interview. “Any conflict in space will be much slower and more intentional than a Star Wars scene,” she said. “It requires a lot more long-term thinking and strategic asset placement.”

In a perfect world, space can be seen as a sanctuary. But since the mid-1970s and the advent of anti-satellite weapons in the Soviet Union and the United States, space has been treated as a contentious domain by the United States, the Soviet Union and other emerging powers. While no shooting wars have broken out in space, the ability to take down space weapons is seen by new powers such as China (in 2007) and India (in 2019) as a means of demonstrating their capabilities.

In addition to ground missiles, the report identifies several ways in which satellites can be attacked. Radio signals can be used to interfere with an opponent’s satellites, or falsify them by sending malicious commands. This would be an extension of electronic warfare already used in naval and air combat.

Some countries, such as France, have even gone so far as to talk about deploying weapons in space to protect their own satellites. However, the authors suggest that satellites using kinetic weapons to shoot down opposing satellites seem unlikely for the time being, given the extraordinary energy required to maneuver an orbital weapon into proper orbit. More likely would be a “T-bone” collision between satellites, which does not require aircraft adaptation, but which occurs when two orbits intersect.

Nations have a strong incentive not to destroy other satellites because of the potential to create dangerous debris that could potentially affect the assets of all nations in space — and debris generated in space has a lasting effect. However, in the immediacy of war, a nation may decide that it is worth permanently losing access to some slots in geostationary orbit, due to debris, in order to win a ground war.

And what about the moon? In the TV show on Netflix, space power, US and Chinese troops find themselves in a ground battle on the surface of the moon. It all seems rather ridiculous, given the cost of transporting all that material to the lunar surface. But still-but still– from a geopolitical standpoint, it seems plausible that in the not-too-distant future we may see humans fighting for the moon.

So what do the study authors think about hand-to-hand combat on the moon, with its low gravity and vacuum? “I would think you’re more likely to take out the missiles on the way up,” Wilson said.

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.