Monday, January 22, 2007

The Arms Race...In Space

Rand Simberg, at TCS Daily, today published an article examining the current state of the space arms race. I know, I know, we're not supposed to have a space arms race, but China sent a rocket up from somewhere near the Xichang Space Center last week and blew one of its own satellites out of low Earth orbit. This was, needless to say, less provoking than blowing up someone else's satellite, but it is causing some concern, nonetheless. Hitting a satellite from Earth was previously believed to be a fairly tough thing to accomplish, but the Chinese made it look pretty easy, so that means they can probably do it again. They don't always have to aim for their own satellites, either. What's more, the Chinese aren't the only nation which will now be feeling the need to own a piece of the sky. What self-respecting 21st-century technological power isn't going to find it in their own best interests to develop the capacity to eliminate the satellites of others while protecting their own technological investments? Simberg points out that America certainly can't afford to ignore this. Have you noticed how dependent our own U.S. military is getting on satellite technology in recent years? A threat to our sats is a threat to our capabilities to defend our interests around the world, including here at home. Yep, the arms race in space is entering a new era--and it might just turn out to be a more visible one.

Okay, as if we don't have enough to worry about now that "my rocket can beat up your satellite" is coming to a space playground near you, there's a more imminent threat posed by the successful use of an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) than the space arms race heating up. The satellite the Chinese destroyed wasn't exactly eliminated, but rather blown to bits, a good number of those bits large enough pose a danger to other low orbiting Earth satellites--including the International Space Station. They will likely be a space hazard for months, if not years, to come, and they've upped the amount of debris our radar will be tracking by a considerable amount.

Simberg provides some analysis of what the future might bring, with or without anti-ASAT treaties, and predicts some necessary changes. For one thing, he says that we are going to have to develop more maneuverable satellites with decoy capacity (the better to escape an oncoming missile.) Another thing he says would be an important improvement is a stand-by supply of satellite technology, ready to be sent into space at short notice, providing an immediate replacement capacity in "wartime or crisis" (which he says would act as deterrent to potential enemy action, since it would up the cost of eliminating our satellite capacity substantially.) One of the key things Simberg sees as imperative is the development of more flexible, cost-effective launch mechanisms. He predicts some resistance to the latter, but finds it necessary all the same, and not just for the space arms race. We need to develop new, less expensive and more easily adaptable launch systems anyway, if we want to further our presence in space. In that regard, he seems to think that the Chinese may actually have done us a favor in taking the space arms race to this level. It might push along a few of the changes that are important for future space exploration. I hope he's right (about the kick-in-the-butt-getting-us-further-into-space part anyway.)