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Satellite attacks evidence arms race in space


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Last year, an American general made a revelation: two Russian orbiting satellites were chasing an American spy satellite in Earth orbit.

It was unclear whether the Cosmos satellites could attack USA-245, an American surveillance device.

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“This has the potential to create a dangerous situation in space,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, head of the Pentagon’s Space Command.

The incident has passed, but it marked a new phase in the burgeoning space arms race, where potentially bomb-armed satellites, laser-firing spacecraft and other technologies have moved from science fiction to reality.

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The situation was made clear on Monday (15), when Russia launched a missile from Earth that blew up one of its own satellites in a show of force.

The secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, called the act “reckless”.

“It shows that Russia is developing new weapons systems that can take down satellites,” he said at a meeting on Tuesday with EU defense ministers.

The militarization of space is as old as the space race itself: as soon as Sputnik was put into orbit in 1957, Washington and Moscow began exploring ways to arm and destroy satellites.

At first, the biggest concern was nuclear weapons in space. In 1967, the superpowers and other countries signed the Outer Space Treaty, which banned weapons of mass destruction in orbit.

Since then, Russia, the United States, China and even India have explored ways to fight in space outside the treaty.

That competition today focuses on the destruction of rival satellites, which are increasingly essential for any advanced army’s communications, surveillance, and navigation.

In 1970, Moscow successfully tested an explosives-laden satellite that could destroy another orbiting satellite.

The United States responded in 1983, when then-President Ronald Reagan announced his ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative, the “Star Wars” program, which promised anti-missile missiles and satellites that emitted lasers, or microwaves.

Much of the imagined technology was then unfeasible. But in a historic move, the Pentagon used a missile to destroy a satellite that failed a 1985 test.

Since then, rivals have tried to show that they have the same aim: China, in 2007, and India, in 2019.

After trying for some time, Russia’s success on Monday didn’t surprise many experts.

“The Russians didn’t need to detonate the satellite to show they had the capacity for it,” said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a space expert at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.

Rather, the episode was a demonstration “that, if necessary, Russia will not allow the United States to be the only ones to control space.”

harassment in space

Countries maintain secrecy about their military space activities, and given that many of the technologies involved are dual-use –both civilian and defense purposes– their capabilities are not entirely clear.

But the race is such that, in 2019, the Pentagon established its Space Force, believing Russia and China had the potential to overtake the United States.

“Maintaining American dominance in this area is now the mission of the US Space Force,” said then Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The race evolved from the idea of ​​destroying satellites with missiles, or kamikaze satellites, to finding other ways to damage them with high-powered lasers or microwave weapons.

Both Russia and China have developed “space stalker” satellites that can be manipulated to physically interfere with others, according to Brian Chow, an independent space policy analyst who spent 25 years at the think tank Rand Corporation.

With robotic arms, “they can simply chase the opposite satellite and move it to another location, or bend an antenna” to disable it, Chow described.

These satellites are still few, but the deployment of two of them by Russia to threaten an American satellite in 2020 shows that the technology is there.

In addition, China and the United States have top-secret programs for small, reusable, robotic-winged spacecraft that can be used with weapons and damage rival satellites.


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