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Pegasus rocket successful in responsive launch demonstration

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Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL rocket is mated to its L-1011 carrier aircraft before the TacRL-2 launch. Credit: U.S. Space Force

A Northrop Grumman Pegasus rocket dropped from the belly of a carrier jet over the Pacific Ocean early Sunday and streaked into orbit with a small U.S. military space surveillance satellite named Odyssey, completing a successful rapid launch exercise in partnership with a secretive new Space Force special projects unit.

The mission’s goal was to demonstrate how the military can develop and launch satellites on faster timescales. The small spacecraft, which a Space Force spokesperson said is named Odyssey, was buttoned up inside the nose cone of a Pegasus XL rocket.

The mission, known as TacRL-2, was part of the Space Force’s “Tactically Responsive Launch” program.

Mounted on the belly of an L-1011 carrier aircraft, the 53,000-pound (24-metric ton) Pegasus XL rocket departed Vandenberg Space Force Base on California’s Central Coast about an hour before launch.

The L-1011 aircraft, named “Stargazer,” flew to the Pegasus drop zone about 150 miles (250 kilometers) off the California coast and lined up on the launch trajectory heading south. Two pilots, a flight engineer, and two launch console operators ensured all systems were “go” for release of the Pegasus.

The flight crew commanded release of the 55-foot-long (17-meter) at 4:11 a.m. EDT (1:11 a.m. PDT; 0811 GMT) as the L-1011 flew at an altitude of 39,000 feet (11,900 meters).

After a five-second free fall, the Pegasus ignited its solid-fueled first stage Orion 50S XL motor to begin the climb into space.

The first stage, fitted with a wing and steering fins, generated more than 160,000 pounds of thrust and fired more than a minute before burning out. The Pegasus then jettisoned its first stage and fired its Orion 50 XL and Orion 38 second and third stage motors to reach orbit with the Odyssey satellite.

Northrop Grumman and the Space Force did not provide a live webcast of the mission.

A statement released by Space Launch Delta 30, formerly the 30th Space Wing, at Vandenberg Space Force Base less than an hour after launch confirmed the mission was successful.

The Space Force established the Tactically Responsive Launch Program to demonstrate the military could “call up” a launch provider and deploy a small satellite into orbit within 21 days.

“Our mission partners and Delta 30 team demonstrated the Space Force tactical response capability to launch small satellite payloads within three weeks,” said Col. Robert Long, commander of Space Launch Delta 30, in a statement. “It takes a resilient team providing agile services and responsiveness to our launch customers for mission success. I want to thank our launch partners and our Delta 30 team for their efforts providing space access for this important tactical response demonstration.”

Military officials have released few details about the Odyssey satellite.

Maj. Nick Mercurio, a Space Force spokesperson, said the payload is a “space domain awareness technology demonstration satellite.” Space domain awareness is a field that encompasses the detection, tracking, and characterization of satellites and debris in orbit.

Officials did not reveal the mission’s target orbit, but airspace warning notices suggested the Pegasus XL rocket likely headed for a sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination of about 98 degrees.

The Odyssey spacecraft was built by a new organization called “Space Safari,” modeled after the Air Force’s secretive “Big Safari” program that modifies aircraft for special missions, according to Gen. Jay Raymond, the Space Force’s chief of space operations.

“The thing that concerns me is our ability to go fast, so everything that we’re doing in the Space Force is designed to allow us to move at speed,” Raymond said Thursday in a virtual discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “So about a year ago, I challenged our acquisition organization to develop a capability in tactical timelines, integrated it onto a launch vehicle and launch it, and let’s see how fast we can do it.

“So we stood up an organization called Space Safari, modeled kind of after what the Air Force has done with their Big Safari program, and in less than a year, they took satellite components off the self, married it up with a satellite bus that was off the shelf, put it together, and it’s a space domain awareness satellite.”

Raymond said it takes about five years to build a GPS navigation satellite.

“That’s not good enough,” he said.

Building and launching a spacecraft in less than a year could pave the way for the Space Force to quickly deploy a satellite to respond to an emerging threat, or to replace a critical satellite in wartime.

“This is a first experiment, and I’m proud of the team,” Raymond said. “It was less than year from when I gave them the challenge to a launch.”

Once the satellite was built, the Space Force kept in storage until May, when officials called it up for launch.

“We kind of had it on the shelf. We just gave them a 21 day call-up, saying get ready to launch in 21 days,” Raymond said

The Space Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $28.1 million contract for the TacRL-2 launch last July. The Defense Department awarded the task order through the Orbital Services Program-4 contract, which covers launch services for small and medium-size military satellites through 2028.

A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket inside its hangar at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

Northrop Grumman had the Pegasus XL rocket for the TacRL-2 mission in storage. It was one of two Pegasus rockets manufactured for Stratolaunch, a company founded by the late billionaire Paul Allen. Stratolaunch developed the largest airplane ever built, and purchased two Pegasus rockets to launch from the giant aircraft, then planned to work on its own launch vehicle.

But Stratolaunch’s progress slowed after Allen’s death in 2018, and the company abandoned plans to launch Pegasus rockets. Instead, Stratolaunch said last year it is working on a hypersonic test vehicle.

Stratolaunch’s airplane successfully flew for the first time in 2019, and completed a second test flight in April.

After Stratolaunch’s plans changed, Northrop Grumman reacquired the near-complete Pegasus rockets from Stratolaunch to offer to other customers.

Kurt Eberly, director of Northrop Grumman’s launch vehicles division, said the Pegasus team and the Space Force worked out how to execute the TacRL-2 mission in the months leading up to the call-up May 22, including agreements with the Western Range at Vandenberg on flight safety parameters. But some specifics, such as the target orbit and trajectory, were not known to the Pegasus team until 21 days ago.

“I would say it was very successful,” he said in an interview. “What we just did with the space vehicle team is really hard. We got the call-up 21 days ago on a Saturday evening. Our team just swung into action. In that call-up, we got direction on the trajectory and where to launch to, and some other particulars. So our team had to adjust to all that.”

The Odyssey satellite arrived at Vandenberg within the last three weeks. Technicians encapsulated the spacecraft inside the Pegasus payload fairing before mating it to the rocket.

Ground teams at Vandenberg connected the Pegasus XL rocket to the L-1011 carrier aircraft Wednesday.

Developed commercially by Orbital Sciences, now part of Northrop Grumman, the Pegasus rocket flew its 45th satellite delivery mission. Since the rocket’s debut in 1990, Pegasus missions have been staged from Vandenberg, Edwards Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral, Wallops Island in Virginia, Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, and the Canary Islands.

The most recent Pegasus launch staged from Vandenberg was in 2013.

“It’s the first time in eight years we’ve had a Pegasus launch from here on the Western Range, so that’s exciting to do something we don’t get to do very often,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Hromsco, commander of the 30th Operational Support Squadron at Vandenberg.

Despite the growth of small satellite operators, the Pegasus rocket has only launched three times since 2013 amid growing competition from other launch companies like SpaceX. Other launch providers in the small satellite sector, such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, are also cutting into the market once served by the Pegasus rocket.

NASA paid $56.3 million to launch a research satellite on the previous Pegasus rocket flight before TacRL-2.

That mission was delayed more than two years due to technical problems with the Pegasus. NASA decided in 2019 to launch a future scientific satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, a much larger launcher than the Pegasus.

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, was originally designed to launch on a Pegasus rocket. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is vastly oversized for the IXPE satellite, but it has the ability to launch the small payload into a unique equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral.

And SpaceX can do the launch for $50.3 million, undercutting the previous publicly-available price for a Pegasus. The $28 million contract for the TacRL-2 mission is half the price NASA paid for the most recent Pegasus mission in 2019.

Eberly said the Pegasus rocket, designed by Orbital Sciences in the 1980s as the first privately-developed satellite launcher, still has a role to play in the launch industry.

“Solid rocket motor propulsion is maybe a little more expensive than some of the low-priced new entrants that we see come along,” he said. “We understand that.”

The benefit of solid-fueled launchers, according to Eberly, is they are inherently responsive.

“They are able to be stored for many, many years, and then are ready to launch at a moment’s notice,” Eberly said. “Solid rocket motor technology can enable very short call-up times and responsiveness. What it requires is to get all the work done up front, and get ready, and get the plan done.’

Northrop Grumman has one more Pegasus XL rocket in the hangar, and could build more. So far, the Pegasus doesn’t have a customer beyond Sunday’s TacRL-2 mission.

The Space Force issued a request for proposals earlier this year for two additional tactically responsive launch missions — TacRL-3 and 4 — for flights in 2022 and 2023.

The military in 2019 selected Aevum, Firefly, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, VOX Space, and X-Bow as eligible to compete for OSP-4 missions, including TacRL-3 and 4.

The ground-launched Minotaur rocket family, derived from decommissioned solid-fueled military missile stages, and the air-launched Pegasus rocket are Northrop Grumman’s offerings under the OSP-4 contract.

“If there is a need to shorten up these call-up times, then solids could have a place to serve in that role,” he said. “In addition to the vehicles launched from the ground, an air-launched solid then gives you flexibility in the basing and the drop point, and allowing you to get to different orbits more quickly than you could get to if you had to launch from the ground at a fixed launch point.

“Maybe there’s a role there (for Pegasus),” Eberly said before Sunday’s launch. “So we’re going to do our best job here on TacRL-2 , and put our best foot forward … And then after the mission, we’ll see what comes out of it.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Source: https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/06/13/pegasus-rocket-successful-in-responsive-launch-demonstration/

Aerospace

R3-IoT gets funding for satellite-enabled sensor connectivity solutions

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TAMPA, Fla. — Scottish startup R3-IoT is expanding to North America after raising early funds for connecting sensors and devices with satellite-enabled solutions.

The $4.3 million seed funding led by venture capital firm Space Capital puts R3-IoT on track to launch commercial services in November.

R3-IoT’s gateways link up with nearby sensors and devices, using satellites in multiple orbits and cellular networks to transmit data through the cloud to customers — or to its software platform that translates the information into insights that inform business decisions.

The terminals have a 10-day battery backup and target customers requiring resilient connectivity in markets including aquaculture, utilities, infrastructure, digital health, emergency services and energy.

A growing number of satellite constellations dedicated to connecting Internet of Things (IoT) have been coming online recently, leveraging smallsat technology advances and cheaper, more available launch options.

However, R3-IoT co-founder and chief technical officer Kevin Quillien said demand is also rising for resilient end-to-end data services that “pure connectivity” solutions are not serving.

“For many key industries looking to digitise their operations, pure satellite connectivity alone doesn’t solve their problems,” Quillien said in an email.

“It is essential therefore that satellite connectivity integrate effectively into a technology stack that can use it to solve real customer problems.”

According to Quillien, drawing on multiple connectivity technologies enables the venture to fine-tune its end-to-end services for various needs.

“By wrapping the satellite services in a technology stack that provides end-to-end cybersecurity (from device to platform and back again), simple deployment and commissioning, decentralised management, and seamless integration into business systems, we enable satellites to solve day-to-day problems for companies, allowing them to streamline operations, save cost, improve safety, and reduce environmental impact,” he said.

North America’s vast landscape presents unique connectivity challenges, he added, and “many particularly in rural and remote areas simply do not have access to reliable connectivity.” 

This is despite businesses becoming increasingly reliant on IoT technologies, especially out in the field.

Smart devices can be deployed to monitor equipment, predict issues, warn of problems and reduce the need for humans in remote or dangerous places.

Quillien said its seed round will help fund operations around 12-18 months beyond commercial launch, enabling it to focus on commercializing at scale, establishing North American operations and growing market share in the U.K. and Europe.

He declined to disclose the startup’s satellite partners, although R3-IoT was one of the industrial winners that took part in low-Earth-orbit broadband operator OneWeb’s recent innovation challenge.


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Source: https://spacenews.com/r3-iot-gets-funding-for-satellite-enabled-sensor-connectivity-solutions/

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Op-ed | Peace in the Era of Weaponized Space

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We are on the verge of a new era in space security: the age of diverse and highly capable dual-use space systems that can serve both peaceful and anti-satellite (ASAT) purposes. These new systems, such as spacecraft capable of undertaking rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), ground-based lasers capable of interacting with space objects, and actions in cyberspace, cannot feasibly be banned; nor should they be, as they promise immense civil and commercial benefits. Instead, we must find ways to maintain peace despite their presence.

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.” — U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, testifying April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: DoD photo by EJ Hersom

The steps currently being taken by the United States to mitigate counterspace threats are necessary but they will not alone be sufficient — the next generation of ASAT weapons will pose a much greater threat than current systems, and require tailored responses. We stand, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, at the brink of poorly understood but potentially catastrophic risks. The solution now is the same as it was then: first, to exploit the United States.’ democratic advantage in untapped intellectual capital; and second, to harness the power of dissent and rigorous contestation to improve predictions, strategic planning, and cost-effective readiness. To that end, the U.S. Department of Defense should establish an open and permanent forum for submission of ideas by all concerned parties, both inside and outside government, and facilitate on-the-record debate regarding their validity and desirability.

Three next-generation ASATs likely to mature during the 2020s — namely rendezvous spacecraft, ground-based lasers, and cyberattacks — illustrate the urgent need for collaboration, critical interrogation of assumptions, and (re-) examination of a wide range of old and new ideas. All three ASAT types can be developed and deployed under the guise of peaceful applications. Each of these threat vectors will, as they advance, enable counterspace operations with substantially greater strategic and operational impact than is currently achievable.

Moreover, all three next-gen ASATs can be used while producing little space debris — a feature clearly important to China, as evidenced by its pivot to non-debris-producing ASAT tests following major international backlash to its 2007 test of a direct-ascent ASAT, namely a ground-launched ballistic missile that generated thousands of pieces of long-lasting space junk when it collided with China’s Fengyun-1C weather satellite.

THE DUAL UTILITY OF SATELLITE-SERVICING SPACECRAFT

Rendezvous spacecraft provide an excellent case study in the challenges plaguing the status quo. These spacecraft are inherently dual-use: if a satellite can remove space debris from orbit or grapple a friendly satellite for servicing (e.g., for repair, refueling, or in situ upgrades), then it can likely also grapple an adversary’s satellite to change its orbit or disable it. Since 2018, at least 11 high-level space officials and organizations (including former Vice President Mike Pence, Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. John Raymond) have expressed concerns that such RPO spacecraft could be used to threaten our critical satellites from close range. Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, is one of the latest voices to join this authoritative group, testifying on April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that:

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

It is good news that U.S. government awareness of the rendezvous threat is growing. However, the signs that it is on the horizon have been there for years (China testing began in 2008, if not earlier) and a decade or more is far too long a lag in threat recognition. Worse yet, noticing a serious threat is merely the first step in a chain of traditionally time-consuming moves — e.g., selecting a solution, developing a concept of operations, programming the acquisition, and deploying the measures — to ready our deterrence and defenses. To adequately deal with emerging threat vectors, the U.S. must greatly expedite these processes.

In addition, the solutions required for many next-gen ASATs must be carefully tailored and crosscutting. Three facets of the rendezvous threat illustrate this particularly well.

First, in 2018, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space attempted to establish voluntary “measures for the safe conduct of proximity space operations,” but they were promptly blocked by Russia. This highlights that discussions in decision-by-consensus international forums cannot be relied upon to solve the rendezvous threat unless reinforced by external action. China and Russia have a strong incentive to block any such rules — namely, that they could undercut China and Russia’s ability to hold our critical satellites at risk by positioning rendezvous attackers arbitrarily close to them. There are, however, means by which the U.S. could incentivize agreement and compliance: for example, the U.S. could attach economic incentives (e.g. conditioning market access), or push for the use of lawful countermeasures to enforce international legal obligations such as the Outer Space Treaty’s Article IX requirement of “due regard.” But identifying and implementing the ideal solution will not be easy: this exemplifies an issue on which a range of experts should propose alternatives, debate one another, and synthesize the results.

Second, replacing legacy constellations comprised of small numbers of large and expensive satellites with new proliferated constellations of many small, inexpensive satellites has gathered many proponents as a means of reducing vulnerability. Doing so is indeed necessary, but it cannot adequately counter the rendezvous threat. This is because for certain critical and vulnerable satellites in higher orbits — e.g., SBIRS early missile warning satellites, and AEHF satellites for communications in nuclear-disrupted environment — proliferated constellations are technically infeasible, prohibitively costly, or both. Additionally, as noted by Christopher Scolese, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, there will be “some number of large [and vulnerable] satellites to address questions that only they can.” Thus, these legacy systems and their similar follow-ons are likely to remain vulnerable well into the 2030s, requiring timely warning and defense mechanisms to keep them safe.

Even GPS is likely to be vulnerable by the late 2020s. Thus far, GPS has been broadly resilient to ASAT attack due to various countermeasures and its redundant design. The GPS constellation consists of about three dozen satellites, each orbiting twice daily, only four of which need to be over a given area at once to sustain service. For this reason, degradation is gradual, not catastrophic: even destroying six satellites at once would only deny service to a localized area for about 95 minutes per day. If, however, one could disable most of the constellation, the result would be near-total loss of GPS services worldwide. While this is largely infeasible with current ASATs, by the late 2020s China may have enough RPO-capable small spacecraft to preposition near every GPS satellite, allowing at-will disablement of the entire constellation. These threats underscore the need to carefully examine each next-generation ASAT individually, in order to identify in advance any unique characteristics which might upend prior assumptions. Doing so is the only way to avoid strategic surprise, and would reveal which threats do (and don’t) deserve priority and how solutions should be designed.

Third, the forum would facilitate serious and open debate regarding what capabilities the U.S. should procure and field, and how to do so in time (likely but a few short years). Most counters to the rendezvous threat, for example, will likely require bodyguard spacecraft to implement. This is feasible: both the U.S. government (e.g. DARPA) and the private sector (e.g. Northrop Grumman) have demonstrated increasingly sophisticated RPO capabilities, including the ability to autonomously dock with a target in GEO and make such spacecraft far smaller and cheaper (e.g. via DARPA’s Blackjack program). Despite these advances, however, the U.S. has yet to develop spacecraft for active defense, much less deploy them, and its handful of RPO-capable spacecraft are 10 times as heavy — and, probably, costly — as those under development by Russia and China. The U.S. must quickly develop and deploy bodyguards comparable in quantity and cost to the potential rendezvous ASATs it faces, or it risks adversaries being able to overwhelm our defenses.

LASERS AND CYBERATTACKS

Nor is the need for such a forum limited to rendezvous spacecraft. Two other emergent ASAT threats reveal similar requirements and lack of preparation: ground-based lasers (GBLs) and cyberattacks. As U.S. intelligence agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency have noted, GBLs will almost certainly become much more capable over the next decade, moving from dazzling or harming sensors to damaging external structures on satellites in LEO. This fundamentally changes the nature of the threat, and requires new solutions — yet, to date, there has been little discussion of such solutions.

Cybersecurity, too, requires swift action and innovative thinking. Many commercial and civilian space systems remain vulnerable. As the U.S. plans to continue increasing military integration with commercial systems, security standards must be improved. Additionally, there is little basis for confidence that military space systems, and particularly their ground segments, are truly cyber-secure now, or that they will remain so going forward.

At the same time, potential adversaries’ cyber capabilities and doctrine are advancing quickly. China’s rapid progress in emerging technology fields could also be a game-changer. One example is Chinese development of quantum communications satellite technology which, as evidenced by the launch of its Micius satellite in 2016, leads all other countries; the result could be that they can hack our space systems but hamstring U.S. response via quantum cryptography.

WHAT’S NEEDED TO KEEP PEACE

As these cases highlight, navigating the era of weaponized space will require a meeting of the minds. For this reason, the Biden administration should establish an institutional mechanism through which a range of ideas can be solicited, exchanged, and directly challenged and defended to filter the signal from the noise.

There is precedent for this. On his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Open Government, which stated that “executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking.” The ensuing Open Government Directive reaffirmed that “the three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government,” and led DOD to quickly establish its Open Government Plan (OGP).

The Biden administration should direct DoD to build on its OGP by adding an Initiative on Public Collaboration for Peace and Prosperity in Space. The first project should be a series of workshops in which relevant experts from the Pentagon and its partners (e.g., contractors and Federally Funded R&D Centers) collaborate with outside experts to assess, compare, and synthesize different proposals to counter specific, individual ASAT threats emerging in the 2020s and 2030s.

As a democracy, the U.S. naturally generates a diversity of ideas. We can either keep them in silos, as we do now, or we can exchange these ideas and subject them to rigorous cross-examination and potential cross-pollination. Standing now at the brink of a new era of weaponized space, our choice should be clear.


Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst with over 160 publications. He can be reached at [email protected] Brandon Kelley is the Director of Debate at Georgetown University, and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.


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Source: https://spacenews.com/op-ed-peace-in-the-era-of-weaponized-space/

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Op-ed | Peace in the Era of Weaponized Space

Published

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We are on the verge of a new era in space security: the age of diverse and highly capable dual-use space systems that can serve both peaceful and anti-satellite (ASAT) purposes. These new systems, such as spacecraft capable of undertaking rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), ground-based lasers capable of interacting with space objects, and actions in cyberspace, cannot feasibly be banned; nor should they be, as they promise immense civil and commercial benefits. Instead, we must find ways to maintain peace despite their presence.

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.” — U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, testifying April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: DoD photo by EJ Hersom

The steps currently being taken by the United States to mitigate counterspace threats are necessary but they will not alone be sufficient — the next generation of ASAT weapons will pose a much greater threat than current systems, and require tailored responses. We stand, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, at the brink of poorly understood but potentially catastrophic risks. The solution now is the same as it was then: first, to exploit the United States.’ democratic advantage in untapped intellectual capital; and second, to harness the power of dissent and rigorous contestation to improve predictions, strategic planning, and cost-effective readiness. To that end, the U.S. Department of Defense should establish an open and permanent forum for submission of ideas by all concerned parties, both inside and outside government, and facilitate on-the-record debate regarding their validity and desirability.

Three next-generation ASATs likely to mature during the 2020s — namely rendezvous spacecraft, ground-based lasers, and cyberattacks — illustrate the urgent need for collaboration, critical interrogation of assumptions, and (re-) examination of a wide range of old and new ideas. All three ASAT types can be developed and deployed under the guise of peaceful applications. Each of these threat vectors will, as they advance, enable counterspace operations with substantially greater strategic and operational impact than is currently achievable.

Moreover, all three next-gen ASATs can be used while producing little space debris — a feature clearly important to China, as evidenced by its pivot to non-debris-producing ASAT tests following major international backlash to its 2007 test of a direct-ascent ASAT, namely a ground-launched ballistic missile that generated thousands of pieces of long-lasting space junk when it collided with China’s Fengyun-1C weather satellite.

THE DUAL UTILITY OF SATELLITE-SERVICING SPACECRAFT

Rendezvous spacecraft provide an excellent case study in the challenges plaguing the status quo. These spacecraft are inherently dual-use: if a satellite can remove space debris from orbit or grapple a friendly satellite for servicing (e.g., for repair, refueling, or in situ upgrades), then it can likely also grapple an adversary’s satellite to change its orbit or disable it. Since 2018, at least 11 high-level space officials and organizations (including former Vice President Mike Pence, Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. John Raymond) have expressed concerns that such RPO spacecraft could be used to threaten our critical satellites from close range. Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, is one of the latest voices to join this authoritative group, testifying on April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that:

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

It is good news that U.S. government awareness of the rendezvous threat is growing. However, the signs that it is on the horizon have been there for years (China testing began in 2008, if not earlier) and a decade or more is far too long a lag in threat recognition. Worse yet, noticing a serious threat is merely the first step in a chain of traditionally time-consuming moves — e.g., selecting a solution, developing a concept of operations, programming the acquisition, and deploying the measures — to ready our deterrence and defenses. To adequately deal with emerging threat vectors, the U.S. must greatly expedite these processes.

In addition, the solutions required for many next-gen ASATs must be carefully tailored and crosscutting. Three facets of the rendezvous threat illustrate this particularly well.

First, in 2018, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space attempted to establish voluntary “measures for the safe conduct of proximity space operations,” but they were promptly blocked by Russia. This highlights that discussions in decision-by-consensus international forums cannot be relied upon to solve the rendezvous threat unless reinforced by external action. China and Russia have a strong incentive to block any such rules — namely, that they could undercut China and Russia’s ability to hold our critical satellites at risk by positioning rendezvous attackers arbitrarily close to them. There are, however, means by which the U.S. could incentivize agreement and compliance: for example, the U.S. could attach economic incentives (e.g. conditioning market access), or push for the use of lawful countermeasures to enforce international legal obligations such as the Outer Space Treaty’s Article IX requirement of “due regard.” But identifying and implementing the ideal solution will not be easy: this exemplifies an issue on which a range of experts should propose alternatives, debate one another, and synthesize the results.

Second, replacing legacy constellations comprised of small numbers of large and expensive satellites with new proliferated constellations of many small, inexpensive satellites has gathered many proponents as a means of reducing vulnerability. Doing so is indeed necessary, but it cannot adequately counter the rendezvous threat. This is because for certain critical and vulnerable satellites in higher orbits — e.g., SBIRS early missile warning satellites, and AEHF satellites for communications in nuclear-disrupted environment — proliferated constellations are technically infeasible, prohibitively costly, or both. Additionally, as noted by Christopher Scolese, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, there will be “some number of large [and vulnerable] satellites to address questions that only they can.” Thus, these legacy systems and their similar follow-ons are likely to remain vulnerable well into the 2030s, requiring timely warning and defense mechanisms to keep them safe.

Even GPS is likely to be vulnerable by the late 2020s. Thus far, GPS has been broadly resilient to ASAT attack due to various countermeasures and its redundant design. The GPS constellation consists of about three dozen satellites, each orbiting twice daily, only four of which need to be over a given area at once to sustain service. For this reason, degradation is gradual, not catastrophic: even destroying six satellites at once would only deny service to a localized area for about 95 minutes per day. If, however, one could disable most of the constellation, the result would be near-total loss of GPS services worldwide. While this is largely infeasible with current ASATs, by the late 2020s China may have enough RPO-capable small spacecraft to preposition near every GPS satellite, allowing at-will disablement of the entire constellation. These threats underscore the need to carefully examine each next-generation ASAT individually, in order to identify in advance any unique characteristics which might upend prior assumptions. Doing so is the only way to avoid strategic surprise, and would reveal which threats do (and don’t) deserve priority and how solutions should be designed.

Third, the forum would facilitate serious and open debate regarding what capabilities the U.S. should procure and field, and how to do so in time (likely but a few short years). Most counters to the rendezvous threat, for example, will likely require bodyguard spacecraft to implement. This is feasible: both the U.S. government (e.g. DARPA) and the private sector (e.g. Northrop Grumman) have demonstrated increasingly sophisticated RPO capabilities, including the ability to autonomously dock with a target in GEO and make such spacecraft far smaller and cheaper (e.g. via DARPA’s Blackjack program). Despite these advances, however, the U.S. has yet to develop spacecraft for active defense, much less deploy them, and its handful of RPO-capable spacecraft are 10 times as heavy — and, probably, costly — as those under development by Russia and China. The U.S. must quickly develop and deploy bodyguards comparable in quantity and cost to the potential rendezvous ASATs it faces, or it risks adversaries being able to overwhelm our defenses.

LASERS AND CYBERATTACKS

Nor is the need for such a forum limited to rendezvous spacecraft. Two other emergent ASAT threats reveal similar requirements and lack of preparation: ground-based lasers (GBLs) and cyberattacks. As U.S. intelligence agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency have noted, GBLs will almost certainly become much more capable over the next decade, moving from dazzling or harming sensors to damaging external structures on satellites in LEO. This fundamentally changes the nature of the threat, and requires new solutions — yet, to date, there has been little discussion of such solutions.

Cybersecurity, too, requires swift action and innovative thinking. Many commercial and civilian space systems remain vulnerable. As the U.S. plans to continue increasing military integration with commercial systems, security standards must be improved. Additionally, there is little basis for confidence that military space systems, and particularly their ground segments, are truly cyber-secure now, or that they will remain so going forward.

At the same time, potential adversaries’ cyber capabilities and doctrine are advancing quickly. China’s rapid progress in emerging technology fields could also be a game-changer. One example is Chinese development of quantum communications satellite technology which, as evidenced by the launch of its Micius satellite in 2016, leads all other countries; the result could be that they can hack our space systems but hamstring U.S. response via quantum cryptography.

WHAT’S NEEDED TO KEEP PEACE

As these cases highlight, navigating the era of weaponized space will require a meeting of the minds. For this reason, the Biden administration should establish an institutional mechanism through which a range of ideas can be solicited, exchanged, and directly challenged and defended to filter the signal from the noise.

There is precedent for this. On his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Open Government, which stated that “executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking.” The ensuing Open Government Directive reaffirmed that “the three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government,” and led DOD to quickly establish its Open Government Plan (OGP).

The Biden administration should direct DoD to build on its OGP by adding an Initiative on Public Collaboration for Peace and Prosperity in Space. The first project should be a series of workshops in which relevant experts from the Pentagon and its partners (e.g., contractors and Federally Funded R&D Centers) collaborate with outside experts to assess, compare, and synthesize different proposals to counter specific, individual ASAT threats emerging in the 2020s and 2030s.

As a democracy, the U.S. naturally generates a diversity of ideas. We can either keep them in silos, as we do now, or we can exchange these ideas and subject them to rigorous cross-examination and potential cross-pollination. Standing now at the brink of a new era of weaponized space, our choice should be clear.


Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst with over 160 publications. He can be reached at [email protected] Brandon Kelley is the Director of Debate at Georgetown University, and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.


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Source: https://spacenews.com/op-ed-peace-in-the-era-of-weaponized-space/

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