In today’s world, everyone is well aware of the commonsensical measures against coronavirus: physical distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccination. Yet another threat that can quickly turn into a war on Earth is emerging. Interestingly, the same protective ideas we deploy against coronavirus are equally effective to counter this proximity threat from dual-use rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs) in outer space.
China since 2008 and Russia since 2014 have conducted multiple months- or even years-long tests of RPOs in space. Both countries have shown that their RPO spacecraft can maneuver close enough to reach other satellites. Moreover, China, Russia, and the United States have used these spacecraft for close inspections of other satellites and/or, in the next few years, will deploy them with robotic arms to refuel, repair, upgrade and transport other satellites or to remove space debris.
On the other hand, international law has remained woefully behind the times in its complacency regarding potential malevolence when spacecraft of one country stay arbitrarily close to another country’s satellites. With little warning, these spacecraft in such close range can move in before defenses can be activated. An adversary’s RPO spacecraft can use their robotic arms to push satellites out of orbit or bend antennae and dent solar panels to disable these satellites while creating little or no space debris. In comparison, satellite destruction by far more familiar ground-based antisatellite (ASAT) missiles generates orbital obstacles in space traffic for all countries. Here is a way for an adversary to target U.S. satellites without affecting others, including itself.
These slow-flying spacecraft often come from far away and take hours or even days to get near their prey. Some take comfort in the long travel time that would provide ample warning. However, watching their approach is useless if we cannot take defensive actions to legitimately prevent them from being stationed dangerously close. In other words, an adversary can take all the time it needs to position their dual-use RPO spacecraft within striking distance of our satellites during peacetime so they are at the ready to successfully attack our satellites during a crisis or opening of a war. Since RPO services are essential for a prosperous space, they cannot and should not be banned. Like living with the global pandemic of coronavirus, we have no choice but learn to live safely alongside the ever-present proximity threat.
How can the concepts similar to physical distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccination be used to protect our satellites against the proximity threat?
Space zones of nearly the same purpose but different names—such as self-defense zone, keep-out sphere, safety zone, and, most recently, warning zone—have been proposed. The idea is to establish a zone around each of our critical but vulnerable satellites. Any country’s spacecraft, whether peaceful or hostile, would not be allowed to enter into another country’s zones without prior consent. Similar to physical distancing, the purpose of a zone is to keep potentially hostile spacecraft a safe distance away from every one of our critical but vulnerable satellites.
In addition, small and cheap bodyguard spacecraft should function as “masks” in keeping the attackers at bay. These bodyguards would patrol our zones during peacetime, crisis and war. If another country’s spacecraft enters a zone, a bodyguard spacecraft will challenge the invader. If it refuses to leave, our bodyguard will block it from reaching our satellite or bring it out of the zone without harming it.
In 2019, Florence Parly, France’s Minister of Armed Forces, described “space exclusion zones” and “small bodyguard satellites” as key features of France’s new space strategy. France is planning to deploy such spacecraft by 2023. Meanwhile, U.S. space officials are still pondering whether zones and bodyguards are the best way to deal with the proximity threat.
Currently there are about 2,800 operating satellites in the sky, of which about 1,400 belong to the United States. Moreover, both numbers are growing rapidly. Ideally, we aim to make most satellites not vulnerable in the first place so that countries only need to protect far fewer satellites with zones and bodyguards. Fortunately, to deal with other space threats such as China’s ground-based ASAT missile successfully tested in 2007, we have already planned to replace vulnerable legacy satellite systems with proliferated constellations of numerous small and cheap satellites. Similar to vaccination, proliferation immunizes constellations against the proximity threat, because losing some satellites would not affect any such constellation to continue performing its mission.
These resilient constellations should be deployed as widely as possible and can be expected to greatly reduce the number of critical but vulnerable satellites. However, it takes time for proliferated constellations to replace the existing vulnerable satellites. For example, Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites for early missile warning or Advanced Extreme High Frequency (AEHF) satellites for communications in a nuclear-disrupted environment will have to be used throughout the 2020s. They are sitting ducks because they are the size of a school-bus with a price tag upwards of a billion-dollars each. On the other hand, these are our eyes and ears required to detect and deter nuclear strikes. If they are threatened, small misunderstandings could escalate quickly into war in space and/or on earth, even a nuclear one.
Worse yet, some critical missions can only be performed by expensive and vulnerable satellites. For example, Space Force’s five billion-dollar and vulnerable Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning satellites, which will eventually replace the SBIRS satellites, are expected to be in orbit by 2029 and to provide service well into the 2030s. Moreover, according to Christopher Scolese, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, there will be “some number of large [and vulnerable] satellites to address questions that only they can.” Zones and bodyguards can protect these critical but vulnerable satellites, which cannot be protected by proliferated constellations.
The recently released Space Traffic Management in the New Space Age includes extensive discussions of the pros and cons of the use of zones and bodyguards in the all-important space traffic management system, which dictates whether space brings peace or war.
If we are to apply lessons learned from coronavirus to outer space, President-elect Joe Biden’s skills in bipartisanship and vows that “America is back” to work with the global community especially its allies hold the key to navigating peace in space. Hopefully, the Biden-Harris transition team and the new administration will cross-examine and cross-pollinate zones, bodyguards, proliferated constellations, and other ideas so as to resolve the proximity threat and foster a peaceful and prosperous space for humankind.
Brian G. Chow (Ph.D. physics; MBA with Distinction; Ph.D. finance) is an independent policy analyst on space and other national security issues with over 160 publications. He can be reached on Twitter at @briangchow.