Who is going to stop the space terrorists?

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Earlier this month, China formally complained to the United Nations about two incidents last year in which small satellites in Elon Musk’s SpaceX constellation from Starlink satellites to the new space station module Chinese Tianhe, which is part of the possibly larger Tiangong space station.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX’s relatively small satellites have threatened other craft. A few years ago, the European Space Agency, ESA, also maneuvered its satellite away from a reckless SpaceX vehicle. This probably won’t be the last time something like this has happened: SpaceX has already launched nearly 2,000 of these relatively inexpensive (and outage-prone) satellites, and has already completed the paperwork to request another 30,000 with an ultimate goal of reaching 42,000.

Satellite. Photo: Shutterstock

While SpaceX has a reputation for not playing well with others, the company isn’t necessarily willfully malicious. Sadly, as space becomes cheaper and more accessible for everyone, and more private companies launch their private and other spacecraft into space, we may see an increase in players. intentionally malicious: space terrorists.

In general, it is believed that there are at least three major types of space terrorism.

The first is to attack the ground operations of spacecraft and their crews. A security breach at a launch site is a real and constant fear, and was described in the science fiction film Contact. In 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September threatened to assassinate and kidnap the crew and families of the Apollo 17 mission, and in 2003, NASA stepped up security around its shuttle launch over fears that Ilan Ramon is not a target.

The second possible manifestation of space terrorism is the hijacking or jamming of radio communications between satellites and the ground. In 2002 and 2004, the Falun Gong group, a religious movement in China, allegedly hijacked transmissions from Chinese satellites. The Sri Lankan militant group, the Tamil Tigers, also successfully did this to an Intelsat communications satellite in 2007. Subsequently, there were also numerous other cases of hacking which allowed rogue groups to access and control satellites in space. Hacking a satellite can do more than just jam or hack the legitimate signal; even a small satellite at supersonic speeds can potentially be reused as a putative space weapon by an unscrupulous faction, especially in the command and control of this unprotected and encrypted satellite. A cybersecurity expert even provided a hypothetical step-by-step plan to hack a Starlink satellite.

A third way in which terrorists could threaten space resources is by directly attacking a spacecraft in space. It is arguably the most difficult to avoid. The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented in detail the many continuing efforts of nation states, dating back more than half a century, to develop destructive anti-satellite weapons (ASAT). Often these were overt programs: in 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech describing US efforts to counter potential Soviet bomb-bearing satellites, effectively publicly launching Program 437, an ASAT nuclear system. There has subsequently been a resurgence of ASAT efforts around the world since the 2000s, which may or may not include the US Air Force’s secret mini-shuttle X-37B as well as ASAT lasers on the ground.

The United States is not the only one developing these anti-satellite technologies. In 2007, China used a ground missile to destroy an aging weather satellite. In 2019, India’s Shakti mission also used a missile in a controversial proof of concept test to destroy a test satellite 300 km above Earth. And Russia has also been testing ASATs for some time, most recently in November 2021, where the Kosmos 1408 satellite is destroyed and created a huge cloud of at least 1,500 space debris that directly threatened the integrity of the International Space Station. and security. of his crew.

However, not all ASATs are inflated ballistic missiles. In 2019, Russia launched an exotic nesting doll satellite, Kosmos 2542, which appeared to give birth to new, smaller satellites in orbit, seen as usable as potential kinetic weapons against US interests in space. And, there is fear that a rogue nation like North Korea could detonate a nuclear weapon in space, creating a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) whose electromagnetic radiation could take nearby satellites offline.

Space was once the domain of nation-states and until now only the above-mentioned four countries have demonstrable ASAT capabilities, but commercial players are increasingly the dominant players and their technology can potentially be used for any purpose. malicious by non-state actors. With costs plummeting, a terrorist group doesn’t even need to be this well funded to place a crude but effective ASAT threat in space. Small, customizable satellites can be bought mostly off the shelf, and they can then be booked on one of the many charter flights, such as the SpaceX rideshare program, for relatively reasonable costs. While there is national and international regulatory oversight to authorize, record, and confirm the nature of these satellites, some companies have already evaded this oversight and successfully sneaked into space without government permission. “If it were possible for an American company to put satellites into orbit without a license, it looks like any other agent… could do the same.”

Once in space, even these small satellites could be maneuvered to crash into other spacecraft, directly creating havoc and damage and possibly even triggering a chain reaction of destruction.

While some of the terrorist threats described here are less likely, others have been proven successful. And if the purpose of terrorist organizations is to terrorize, to cause damage in space, even if only for smaller and less valuable satellites, that’s pretty scary.

In recognition of these persistent threats to satellites and the lives of astronauts in space, there has been a growing appreciation for various military agencies to focus more on defensive and offensive activities in space. Notably, this included President Trump’s Space Force, but also recent NATO disclosures regarding its emerging space policies and in particular its Strategic Space Situational Awareness System, and reconnaissance by the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment. of the US intelligence community’s report on countries’ emerging space threats. like Russia and China.

Given all of this, we need to be more proactive in developing defensive anti-ASAT technologies in space and, perhaps, require that every satellite have the capacity to evade dangerous threats (which is not a trivial matter given that adding reserve propellant to a satellite increases weight and therefore costs). However, even these efforts are fraught with political concerns, as even anti-ASAT capabilities could be seen as dual-use technology, putative ASAT itself.

In general, it’s imperative that we increase oversight of our launches, physically harden up our most valuable satellites and their launch sites, work on better cybersecurity standards for all parties involved – NASA has a clear problem – and spacecraft (not just commercial) and in general, discuss prominently the need to intensify efforts to combat terrorism in outer space in relevant international bodies such as the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Space. outer space.

Elon Musk was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2021. In the past, the commendation has included both heroes and villains, hopefully another incident with Starlink doesn’t put Elon in that latter category.

Professor Dov Greenbaum is Director of the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies at Harry Radzyner Law School, IDC Herzliya


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