A plucky hero in a somersaulting spaceship fires a decisive projectile at the colossal hostile command base. Other spacecraft dogfight nearby, executing balletic spins while a glowing alien planet lights up the background. Inevitably, somebody is blasted off of somebody else’s tail, an enormous explosion takes out the bad guys, and a major victory is scored. Space wars in science fiction movies are as thrilling as they are predictable.
But such exciting fictional scenarios haven’t exactly prepared us for the slightly more humdrum realities of space-based attacks and counter-attacks. Ask a person on the street about space war, and they’ll probably think you’re talking about the latest blockbuster. Yet in certain ways space has already become a theater of war, and the potential for off-world conflicts is only increasing with time. Modern societies, and particularly their militaries, are ever more dependent on communication and reconnaissance satellites, which are vulnerable to projectiles, hacking, or sabotage.
Governments around the world are training for new possibilities; two years ago, the U.S. Air Force Space Command held a large-scale war game set in outer space in the year 2025 to simulate different hazards, including spacecraft jamming, ground-to-space attacks, and direct energy weaponry like lasers. As we prepare to extend our species to other planets, we might also want to get ready to face our aggressive side out on the final frontier.
An artist’s concept of the interception and destruction of nuclear-armed re-entry vehicles by a space-based electromagnetic railgun. The LTV Aerospace and Defense Co. has demonstrated hypervelocity launch technology in the laboratory that is applicable to a ballistic missile defense system.
“There really is no such thing as war in space, it’s just war,” said General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, during a speech on Feb. 3, 2017. “But war can extend into space, and it isn’t a stretch to imagine how a terrestrial conflict can migrate to space.”
At the start of the Space Age, Earth orbit was considered to be the ultimate high ground, and both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. sought to gain every advantage they could, using satellites to spy on one another and planning secretive military excursions in space. Though both nations were locked in a Cold War, they agreed to at least keep the majority of their conflicts confined to one planet, drafting the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared that space would mostly be used for peaceful purposes. Article IV of the treaty states that countries will “undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” But that in of itself did not close the door on space war.
“As a lawyer, you not only look at what is said, but what is not said,” says Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “One thing which isn’t there is conventional weapons. So the stationing of conventional weapons in outer space is in principle allowed.”
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Soviets created what were essentially space mines; spacecraft that would approach another craft and detonate, damaging the target with shrapnel. The Americans also tested anti-satellite weaponry, work that reached its zenith with President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars), which was meant to produce a large-scale missile defense system. But the wind was taken out of the program’s sails that year when the Russians placed a voluntary moratorium on their own space-based offensive capabilities as a diplomatic gesture. As long as that was in place, Congress was unwilling to fund further anti-satellite tests and the specter of conflict in space faded into the background for a couple decades.
“There really is no such thing as war in space, it’s just war.”
But General Goldfein is not the only one serving up renewed space war anxiety. In just the past few months, many articles have warned about saber rattling (and even lightsaber rattling) from various countries, and both the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon are said to be worried about orbital warfare. Similar proclamations can be found from last year and the year before. “I think a lot of those articles are just hawks who want to bulk up what we do in space,” says P.J. Blount, a research counselor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “But at the same time it’s a definite risk, so it’s not something to discount.”
The worldwide increase in tensions can probably be traced to 2007 when China blew up an aging weather satellite—its own—a move that the international community reacted to with trepidation. China denied the incident for a while but then stated that they didn’t think their actions would be such a big deal. Of course, they then conducted follow-up demonstrations largely seen as shows of their anti-satellite capabilities. In 2013, they managed to launch a missile to nearly 30,000 kilometers, almost high enough to take out U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and conducted further tests in 2014 and 2015.
An artist’s concept of a ground/space-based hybrid laser weapon.
But you don’t need to blow up a satellite to render it inoperable. Russia is thought to have taken out GPS signals during its recent war in Ukraine, and North Korea has jammed satellite signals in the DMZ. An open source project called the Satellite Networked Open Ground Station (SatNOGS) allows anyone to download plans from the internet and 3-D print a system that can point a communications dish to track satellites. A savvy hacker could feasibly crack into and take over a satellite’s operations.
“Orbits can be changed; sensors can be blinded; data can be corrupted. Facts could become as fragile in space as on Earth if systems aren’t protected,” wrote security and intelligence journalist, David Ignatius, in the Washington Post in March.
If this sounds like some far-off scenario, consider that the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan separatist group that the U.S. State Department listed as a terrorist organization, took over a vacant radio band on an Intelsat satellite in 2005 to broadcast signals throughout their region of the world. The fact that they managed to do so for two years without the anyone noticing should show the vulnerabilities such technologies face. And all the way back in 1986, a disgruntled engineer named John MacDougall forced an HBO satellite to transmit an angry message to customers. “GOODEVENING HBO FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT,” it read.
“GOODEVENING HBO FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT,” it read.
“$12.95/MONTH ? NO WAY! [SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]”
The example is not panic inducing, but many states now sponsor professional hackers, suggesting that such takeovers could become more prevalent.
One final space-based danger comes from on-orbit servicing, an emerging technology that many in the satellite industry are hoping to develop. Today, satellites are often decommissioned because they run out of fuel or suffer a small but repairable glitch in their hardware. The hope from on-orbit servicing would be to send a small renovation spaceship to rendezvous with older satellites, top up their fuel, and restore them to working order.
An artist’s concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: U.S. Air Force
“The very suspicious or cynical view would be if you can go up to a satellite and screw some screws, or refuel, or snip a wire, that technology can be used in an aggressive or unfriendly fashion,” says Christopher Johnson, a space law advisor for the Secure World Foundation. “Currently no satellites have defensive technology against another satellite, so the question is who is going to be in control of this technology. And if you have a spacecraft with scissors and a laser, will you sell it to anyone willing to buy it?”
After China’s 2013 anti-satellite test, the U.S. declassified information about its secret Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), which has produced spacecraft able to fly up to and inspect other satellites. Russian military satellites launched in 2013 and 2014 are also suspected of having such capabilities. “According to Brian Weeden, a former Air Force captain specializing in space surveillance, three of the satellites have changed orbit several times. They moved close to a Russian spacecraft and even collided with it. The fourth satellite maneuvered close to several newly launched Russian satellites and came very close to two Intelsat commercial communications satellites,” wrote defense and foreign policy reporter, Jonathan Broder, in Newsweek last year.
In many ways, these non-destructive means are preferable to ballistic missile attacks. When China blew up its weather satellite, it created an enormous debris field that polluted the orbital space around it. Additional incidents would only increase the amount of space junk already clogging up the expanse above our planet. Countries without much reliance on space might not care a great deal—China has fewer satellites in orbit than the U.S. or Russia, which is one reason that many observers give for why it has made more adversarial moves in this arena. But a degraded space environment would eventually affect everyone on Earth and create problems for those planning to travel to other worlds.
A 1960 concept image of the United States Air Force’s proposed Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) that was intended to test the military usefulness of having humans in orbit. Credit: NASA
Should nations eventually settle people on the moon or Mars, the sci-fi scenarios described above might come true, at least in part. Contested territories could one day have to be defended at the point of a gun, or the laser-blast of a spacecraft. But even here, films have created unrealistic expectations for how exciting (or not) such battles would be. Day-to-day warfare involves troop patrols and radar jamming far more often than grand heroic fights, and there’s no reason to believe space war would be any different.
“I think it would be indicative of how most wars go,” says John Klein, a professor at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “The cliché is 99 percent boredom, 1 percent sheer terror.”