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The Danger Of War In Space

The first pair of the 28 Planet Labs Earth Observation satellites leave the ISS in 2014.

The space superpowers of China, Russia and the United States, as well as aspiring spacefaring nations such as Iran and North Korea, all have the capability to disrupt the global satellite operations that govern many aspects of life. GPS navigation, international phone calls, financial transactions, weather prediction and nuclear missile launch surveillance could all be affected.

Credit U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
A United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket blasts off with the Air Force’s Global Positioning System IIR-21 satellite from Space Launch Complex-17A in 2009

Lee Billings, editor of Scientific American, covering space and physics, reports in War in Space May Be Closer than Ever, "space has become the ultimate high ground ..." and, "...the long-simmering tensions are now approaching a boiling point due to several events, including recent and ongoing tests of possible anti-satellite weapons by China and Russia..."

Stratfor Global Intelligence reports what it sees as the latest threats including a missile test by China in 2013 that approached the Geosynchronous Satellite Orbit, where the United States and Russia have early warning satellite systems.  In 2014 the United States put into place a surveillance system to spy on satellites in higher orbits, detailed here.

China, Russia and the United States are all accused of ignoring the unwritten rule of no weapons in space, with one  allegation that Russia designed satellites to disable other satellites, as reported by the BBC and others.

Scientific American reports, "There are many ways to disable or destroy satellites beyond provocatively blowing them up with missiles. A spacecraft could simply approach a satellite and spray paint over its optics, or manually snap off its communications antennas, or destabilize its orbit."

The State Department is well aware of the potential danger of a war in space and is leading diplomatic efforts to prevent one, but makes it clear if attacked, the United States will defend its space assets. The Obama Administration has budgeted $5 billion over five years to enhance the military space program, both offensively and defensively.

But is war in space inevitable? Scientific American Editor Lee Billings hopes not. His article quotes arms-control expert and co-founder of the Stimson Center think-tank, Michael Krepon, who says treaties offer little assurance. Krepon says instead of creating space weapons, the United States and other countries should be worrying about all the space junk, which could be weapons.

Krepon adds,"...there are about 20,000 weapons already up there in the form of debris. They’re not purposeful—they’re unguided. They’re not seeking out enemy satellites. They’re just whizzing around, doing what they do.” And, according to Billings, quoting Krepon, "the risk of accidental collisions and debris strikes will continue to grow as more nations launch and operate more satellites without rigorous international accountability and oversight."

Billings concludes, "...as the chance of accidents increases, so too does the possibility of their being misinterpreted as deliberate, hostile actions in the high-tension cloak-and-dagger military struggle in space."