Take a fresh look at your lifestyle.

- Advertisement -

War in space: U.S. officials debate rules for conflict in orbit


Ukraine’s use of commercial satellites to repel the Russian invasion has fueled US space forces’ interest in leveraging private sector capabilities to develop new technologies for waging war in space.

But the potential reliance on private companies and the technological revolution that has made satellites smaller and more powerful forces the Department of Defense to wrestle with difficult questions about what to do if those private satellites are targeted by an adversary.

White House and Pentagon officials have been trying to determine what the policy should be since a top Russian official said in October that Russia could target its growing fleet of commercial satellites if they are used to help Ukraine.

Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ non-proliferation and weapons department, called the growth of privately operated satellites “an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of technologies in space and is clearly has become during the latest developments in Ukraine. ”

He warned that “quasi-civil infrastructure could become a legitimate target for retaliation”.

In response, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, repeated earlier comments from her counterpart at the Pentagon that “any attack on US infrastructure will be met with a response, as you have heard from my colleague, in a time and in a manner of our choosing.”

But what that response will be is unknown, as officials from a number of agencies try to create a policy framework for how to respond if a commercial company is targeted.

In a recent interview, General David Thompson, the Space Force’s vice chief of operations, said that while expanding partnership with the commercial space industry is one of his top priorities, it has also led to a host of unanswered questions.

“The conflict in Ukraine has brought it to the forefront,” he said. “Firstly, commercial companies think very clearly and carefully: can we be involved? Should we be involved? What are the consequences of involvement? … And on our side it is exactly the same. Should we depend on commercial services? Where can we count on commercial services?”

The Pentagon has long relied on the private sector, he said. But the proliferation of small satellites has created a more resilient system that has provided real-time images of Ukraine’s battlefield from space, allowing countries to track troop movements, assess damage and share information. Communications systems, such as SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, have kept the internet going at a time when Ukraine’s infrastructure has been decimated.

The discussions come as the Pentagon invests in more systems that were originally developed for civilian use, but also have military applications. In the National Defense Strategy released late last year, the Pentagon pledged to “enhance cooperation with the private sector in priority areas, particularly with the commercial space industry, leveraging its technological advancements and entrepreneurial spirit to enable new opportunities .”

Several companies are developing small rockets that can be launched cheaply and with little attention. Meanwhile, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket at record speed, firing 61 times last year. The company is on track for even more launches this year.

“We think we’ll be in the 200, 300, 400 range in a few years,” said Major General Stephen Purdy Jr. of the Space Force at a conference this month, referring to total space launches. “There’s been a huge increase in commercial launches.”

He said the Space Force would like to get to the point where “we are launching constantly, and there is a schedule. There’s a launch in two hours and there’s a launch in 20 hours. Your satellite is not ready? OK, go to the next one.

For the next round of national security launch contracts, the Space Force has proposed an approach designed specifically to help small launch companies compete.

One track of contracts will be reserved for the most capable missiles – the ones that can lift heavy payloads to any orbit where the Pentagon wants to place a satellite. Stalwarts like SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, would likely compete for that. Blue Origin, the venture owned by Jeff Bezos, could also potentially provide its New Glenn rocket, though it has yet to fly. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But the Space Force has proposed offering a second orbit for smaller rockets, giving start-ups access to one of the most renowned and lucrative space markets that could be worth billions of dollars over several years. Those companies include Rocket Lab, which recently christened its launch site on Virginia’s east coast, adding to its New Zealand facility, and Relativity, which is expected to launch the world’s first 3D-printed rocket on Wednesday.

There are also plenty of aerospace companies promising to build rockets that have never flown. “The challenge is not to set the bar too low,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in an interview. “We don’t think it’s helpful to have paper rockets compete with real rockets. … There has to be a certain amount of due diligence. There has to be a certain amount of common sense.”

The new approach has “balanced that tension really well between making sure we have what we need to access the national security space and helping, as best we can, to drive and drive growth in the commercial market.” benefit,” Thompson said.

The Space Force also looks to the private sector for what is known as in-space maintenance, refueling spacecraft, and repairing damaged spacecraft. At one point, Purdy said, he envisioned a future where there are propellant depots in space, tugs that can move damaged satellites, junkyards and in-orbit manufacturing on commercial space stations.

In other words, ensuring that space has the same warfare infrastructure and logistics as on the ground.

“In the other domains, we don’t build a ship or a tank or an airplane and fuel it up and then say, ‘Okay, you’re going to use this for the next 15 or 20 years, and you have to plan everything. the fact that you’ll never refuel this one,” said Purdy. “It’s hard to imagine, but that’s basically how we work in space.”

So removing orbital debris is creating freedom of movement in space, he said, the equivalent in orbit of saying we “need a mine-detection and clearing capability.”

Last year, the Space Force launched a program called Orbital Prime that would give companies seed money to develop the technology needed to clean up space. In the first round of the program, companies can win prizes of $250,000, with a whopping $1.5 million in a second round of funding. The program concludes with a test demonstration in orbit.

“New technologies are opening up the market,” Thompson said. “And that has led to a culture change. We try to adapt to it, but it brings challenges, as with any change.”

One such challenge is the new rules of the road – how best to use commercial technology in warfare and how to respond when it comes under attack. For now, there are more questions than answers.

“I will tell you absolutely with the National Space Council, with the National Security Council, with the office of the Secretary of Defense and certainly within the Air Force and Space Force departments, we’re having an intense discussion right now,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of thinking and development and policy work that needs to be done.”

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.