WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Once satellites are in orbit they stay there, in the same position until they run out of fuel, then they fall back to Earth, but as the militarisation of space hots up satellites need to be able to move.
In the event of a shoot out in space, something that’s looking more likely as the militarisation of space continues, the US Department of Defense (US DOD) is working to create satellite constellations that can dodge incoming missiles or even satellite-based weapons, according to US Air Force officials.
“We have to give our mission systems an opportunity to participate in their own defense, give them a fighting chance,” Michael Dickey, who runs the Enterprise Strategy and Architectures Office at Air Force Space Command, said at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill on Friday. “And we’ve begun to introduce changes.”
“We are doing a lot of work in that area,” added Col. Russell Teehan, Portfolio Architect of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
The remarks come a little more than a week after the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that China and Russia are developing space based lasers and other weapons capable of knocking out American satellites, and those nascent threats mean that future US satellites will have to be able to manoeuvre much faster and more artfully than they do today if they’re going to have any chance of surviving an attack.
“It’s not hard to imagine, if someone is shooting at you, you would maybe like to get out the line of fire and so creating some agility with our space systems becomes very important,” said Dickey. “Manoeuvrability takes fuel and thrusters and all of that. You’ll start to see that in the next round of modernization.”
But there are limits to how well satellites can dodge and weave in space. They fly far above the atmosphere that allows fighter planes to manoeuvre, and they are too small to carry much rocket fuel – something that China, Russia, and the US are all trying to resolve with their newest range of Nuclear Batteries, and new fuel-less rocket propulsion systems, like the fabled EM Drive, that don’t need fuel in order to move or manoeuvre rockets or satellites around.
“Our satellites aren’t pulling nine Gs, right?” Dickey said, referring to gravitational force. He described the manoeuvring as something of a slow-motion glide, “kinda like a Keanu Reeves thing in the Matrix.”
One key to helping satellites avoid attack is moving them out of what Teehan called “predictable orbits.” These include geosynchronous earth orbits, which keep satellites above a particular spot on the Earth’s surface, and Low Earth Orbits, in which they zoom around the world. Teehan also added that researchers elsewhere, in both the private and military sectors, are already coming up with ways to move satellites from high orbits to low ones in order to provide new Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
“Imagine the dynamic architecture you can create if you can create manoeuvre in the domain?” he said.
Another key is getting better situational awareness data off those satellites and then sharing it with more people, faster.
“A lot of this is: Who else is watching what’s going on? And can I synchronize forces? Because if Johnny goes to the right, and Sally goes to the left, if we work just at the tactical level, we won’t be able to synchronize forces. It’s not just on board, it’s synchronizing the sensors and data flows to operate as an enterprise organization,” added Teehan.
Recent attention has focused on more exotic solutions, such as arming satellites to ward off incoming missiles or other enemy weapons, and the US DOD also has a program to put robotic arms on satellites to do repair work, which in theory could also be used to defend itself from an enemy space weapon that was getting too close, like a boxer defending his corner, and at the breakfast, the officials declined to rule out either possibility.
“We have a lot of things we can do,” said Dickey.