In a recent report released by the United States’ Defense Intelligence Agency, it was revealed China is working to develop “inspection and repair” satellites that may actually be used as orbital weapons platforms. It is believed Russia already has a number of similar platforms in low Earth orbit, pressing concerns about the vulnerability of America’s satellite infrastructure.

Space-fairing nations have a vested interest in developing the means to repair or maintain their satellites while still in orbit, and the ever-growing threat posed by orbital debris has led to a number of programs aimed at capturing and de-orbiting large bits of space junk to make Earth’s low orbit neighborhood more inviting. The problem is, orbital platforms that are capable of locating, closing with, and manipulating orbiting satellites could also be filed under another, very different, heading: space weapons.

Contrary to what we may have grown up seeing in science fiction movies and television shows, disrupting the function of Earth’s orbital assets doesn’t require powerful laser beams or even the ability to fire traditional projectiles. In many cases, all it would take to cause serious issues with systems the United States is reliant on for national security would be to give them a little nudge.

China follows Russia's lead in deploying space 'tools' that look an awful lot like weapons
The RemoveDEBRIS net deployed by SpaceX in April could easily be used to capture satellites. (University of Surrey Space Center)

Most satellites lack any sort of defensive capability, and most are not able to quickly maneuver away from closing threats. That means a platform China launches under the auspices of being able to grab and manipulate its own satellites could just as easily be used to interfere with another nation’s communications, GPS, or even missile defenses. America, for instance, relies on optical satellites to locate and identify ballistic missile launches. Without that early warning provided by orbital assets, American missile defense systems would not have time to accurately determine a missile’s trajectory and launch interceptors to prevent it from making landfall. In other words, the disruption of just a handful of orbital platforms could effectively neuter America’s ability to prevent a nuclear strike on American soil.

It is widely believed that Russia already maintains as many as a half-dozen of these potential space weapons in orbit above our heads, commonly referred to as “inspector” satellites. The behavior of these satellites has demonstrated already that the threat posed by these mobile orbital platforms extends beyond manipulating other country’s satellites. They can also be used to eavesdrop.

According to statements made by French Defense Minister Florence Parly, Russia’s “Luch-Olymp” satellite closed with a joint French and Italian military communications satellite in 2017, using what she referred to as “big ears” to attempt to eavesdrop on the secure communications link that satellite provided to the European allies.

Trying to listen to one’s neighbor is not only unfriendly. It’s called an act of espionage,” Parly said to the press. “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.”

She then added, whimsically, “This little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”