On Monday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 departed from Florida with three tons of supplies, equipment, and new experiments for the crew of the International Space Station. As is often the case, the manifest included a few unusual things – including human sperm to be used in experiments regarding human reproduction in microgravity.
One such experiment, a technology demonstrator dubbed RemoveDEBRIS, aims to take on a growing threat to every nation’s orbital operations: junk. Space junk, which is primarily debris left behind by previous rocket launches or orbital assets that have exceeded their operational life, has been the focus of a number of projects fielded by nearly every space faring nation, and with good reason. With 23,000 pieces of orbital debris that are large enough to track, each traveling at around 17,000 miles per hour, launching rockets safely into low earth orbit and beyond may soon be nearly impossible, as the space above our heads becomes a shooting gallery loaded with our own discarded trash.
It’s no wonder, then, that countries like China, Russia, and the United States have such a vested interest in developing platforms that can intercept pieces of equipment orbiting the earth and force them into a reentry trajectory, burning the junk up and alleviating orbital traffic.
The thing is… in space, one man’s trash collector is another’s orbital weapons platform.
RemoveDEBRIS is a 220 pound piece of equipment designed not to actually capture existing space junk, but rather to deploy cube-sats (miniature satellites) and then re-capture them using a variety of applications, including a harpoon, a net launcher, and a “drag sail.” Each of these demonstrations are intended to assess the most effective, budget friendly means of capturing and destroying large pieces of wayward space debris that could potentially pose a threat to ongoing orbital operations.
However, these same means of capturing debris could easily be used to destroy or otherwise interfere with functional orbital assets, most of which are not equipped with a rapid means of evasion or any other form of defense. To a harpoon, net, or drag sail, there is little difference between an out of control hunk of Soviet era rocket and an operational communications or reconnaissance satellite.
America has come to rely heavily on a constellation of satellites for everything from GPS navigation to communications. Well aware that China and Russia have already set their sights on land and orbit based platforms intended to interrupt, interfere with, or destroy these satellites, plans are moving forward to launch an entirely new series of hardened GPS satellites, for instance, hoping to prevent an enemy from using signal interference to disrupt the flow of information through orbit – but there remains little the Pentagon can do about a physical attack on those same assets.
“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems,” said a U.S. Intelligence report released in February.
“Of particular concern, Russia and China continue to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities,” it continued.
Designing and building equipment suitable to function in orbit is expensive and arduous – then getting those systems into orbit represents another significant expense and undertaking. As a result, offensive applications, which are easier and cheaper to develop and deploy, are developing at a faster rate than defensive ones. In short, it’s a whole lot easier to mess with satellites than it is to defend them – and the RemoveDEBRIS program, while noble in its goals, can’t be ignored as not only a test bed for the future of space cleaning efforts, but for the future of space fighting endeavors as well.
RemoveDEBRIS’ net, harpoon, and sail experiments each work under the same basic principle: change the trajectory of an orbital body, forcing it to reenter the atmosphere where it will burn up. In fact, all you really have to do to completely destroy a satellite is slow it down, causing it to reenter on its own.
This methodology would, of course, work on a functional satellite, but it’s important to note that a satellite doesn’t have to be destroyed to be rendered useless. Satellites, like all spacecraft, are built through a compromise of durability and weight restrictions.
Because it costs, on average, $10,000 per pound to get something into orbit, many orbital platforms are designed to be simple, functional, and no heavier than they absolutely have to be to function. The Lunar Lander used during the Apollo missions, for instance, was famously no thicker than a sheet of tin foil in some places for this very reason. As a result, satellites, as a rule, are only hardy enough to do what they were designed to do – and nothing more.
Merely knocking a satellite off of its trajectory could be enough to cut the feed its transmitting, and a projectile weapon like a harpoon could cause serious damage to a satellite – rendering it useless without exerting the fuel required to force its reentry. Crippling America’s ability to detect nuclear missile launches, communicate between assets on the surface, or even know where on the globe equipment is located could be as simple as giving the right satellites a little nudge in the wrong direction.
“Most folks aren’t thinking about the fact that our first way of detecting a launch by North Korea, so that we can turn our radars to start tracking it and start aiming our interceptors to be able to get it in time, is a satellite up there waiting for that heat signature,” Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in December. “We can not let that satellite be dazzled for 10 or 15 minutes, it would be too late.”
So, as three American, one Japanese, and two Russian members of the current ISS crew work to assemble, deploy, and test the RemoveDEBRIS platform, you can expect defense officials from each of those nations (as well as others) to be paying close attention to which aspects of their experiments prove the most effective.
And further, we can expect to see that technology duplicated not only on debris-catchers, but quite possibly, on the next generation of offensive orbital platforms.
Check out the video released by the University of Surrey Space Center to see what the RemoveDEBRIS program has planned for the coming months:
Feature image courtesy of the University of Surrey Space Center