War in space

If there’s a war in space it won’t involve huge fleets of ships in a shoot-‘em-up accompanied by classical music, as battle is often depicted in science fiction movies.

“Our war in space won’t be particularly a Star Wars version,” according to Linda Dawson, senior lecturer emeritus in physics and space sciences at the University of Washington Tacoma and author of the recent War in Space: The Science and Technology Behind Our Next Theater of Conflict (Springer Praxis Books, 2018). Dawson recently gave a talk about the book at the Museum of Flight.

Linda Dawson
Linda Dawson, author of War in Space, spoke Sept. 14, 2019 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Spacecraft with weapons in space are still pretty far in the future,” Dawson said. “We’re talking decades.”

Such a conflict would likely destroy every spacecraft in orbit, according to Dawson.

“That kind of a battle would end up disastrous for everyone involved,” she said. “The war would be over in a matter of minutes if that happend just outside of Earth orbit, and it would affect us on Earth for decades.”

That’s not necessarily what is preventing it from happening.

“Space is a very harsh theater of war,” Dawson said, listing the lack of air, extreme temperatures, radiation, and space junk as just the start of the problems such a war would face.

“Access [to space] is expensive and technologically challenging,” Dawson said. “It’s not like we would choose to go to outer space to engage in a war. It’s just that we have spacecraft up there that we all depend on, and so it is an area that is intriguing to countries that don’t agree with each other.”

The likely nature of war in space

War in space would be more subtle than a bunch of big explosions. A variety of weapons, including Earth-to-space, space-to-Earth, and space-to-space varieties are possible. Lasers, missiles, and various “kill vehicles” or “jammers” could be employed to foul up orbiting assets. Space debris itself could be a weapon. Take a look at this video from NASA:

Video Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at JSC

Earth is at the center of the graphic, and each of the dots represent spacecraft, whether working or not. There’s a lot of junk out there. The Kessler syndrome is a scenario proposed in 70s by NASA scientist Donald Kessler; it posits that if there’s a dense enough amount of debris in space, then one collision or explosion could create a chain reaction of other colllisions or explosions.

“Pretty soon all you have is debris out there and you can’t get through it,” Dawson said. That would make it extremely difficult to operate existing satellites or launch new ones.

We sometimes don’t realize how much we depend on space systems. Wrecking all of those satellites would mess up a lot of things, from our GPS navigation systems to television signals, data exchange, air traffic control, communication systems, and weather forecasting. It would be a total pain.

Though a number of different entities are tracking space debris, it continues to get more challenging. Space X plans to launch 12,000 cube sats to create broadband service; these smaller objects are harder to track. There are unanswered questions about who owns space debris and who can or should clean it up.

“Major spacefaring nations have all been increasingly aggressive with military and surveillance operations in space,” Dawson added.

Preventing war in space

Dawson said the notion of preventing war in space is simple on its surface. It’s the same as preventing war on Earth. You use diplomacy, establish rules of conduct, and operate with openness and cooperation. She said we need more detail than is included in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a United Nations effort signed by more than 100 nations that set ground rules for peaceful exploration of space, and we need to figure out if and how existing international law applies to space. It’s all easier said than done.

“The international part of it is the difficult part,” Dawson said. The US has recognized its vulnerabilities in space and is working to protect its own assets, but other countries are doing their own thing.

“I try to be hopeful, but I think the international part of it is the biggest challenge,” Dawson said.

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Also by Linda Dawson:

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