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The weaponisation of space

2 September 2019

Ever since the first ping was received from Russia's Sputnik satellite back in the 1950s, space has been seen as a critical element of every superpower's military activities.

Until Sputnik, Russia and the USA had been focused on creating nuclear weapons that would need to be carried onboard huge aircraft such as the B52, requiring dangerous overflights of enemy territory before dropping such ordinance and (hopefully) returning home.

The successful launch and orbit of the first satellite changed all that forever.

Once the military superpowers realised the almost total invulnerability of ballistic missiles and the much faster way they could deliver their payloads over distances of many thousands of Km, the race to militarise space was on.

After Gary Powers' U2 spy plane was shot down over Russia back on May 1st, 1960, "spy satellites" became an crucial intelligence-gathering tool.

Both the Soviet Union and the USA filled the skies with their camera-equipped satellites and both sides came up with some novel ways to return the captured images to earth.

Since this was long before the days of ultra-high definition electronic cameras and high-speed digital data links, many of the data-retreival strategies were incredibly crude. Most commonly, a satellite would be hurled into a short-lived orbit, during which it would pass over locations "of interest" and its onboard film-based cameras would snap away, gathering multiple frames of imagery. The satellite would then be de-orbited, after which it (and its precious cargo) would be recovered.

Obviously this was a very expensive and inefficient way to keep a watching eye on your enemy -- but it sure beat having your long-range aircraft shot out of the sky by enemy missiles. Satellites were effectively beyond the range of such missiles and virtually indetectable so they were safe.

Of course we've now come a very long way from those early days of 100% disposable "one mission" satellites and now the heavens are filled to bursting with all manner of orbiting military hardware.

Just last week we saw a US military X-37B orbital drone return after spending almost two years in space. The exact role of this craft has not been disclosed (national security you know) but it was obviously engaged in long-term reconnaissance of strategic locations scattered across the face of the planet. This craft will no doubt be overhauled, refueled and relaunched making it a far cry from the "disposables" of the 1960s.

Perhaps the most publicised initiative to militarise space was the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as "Star Wars") proposed by the US government during the presidency of Ronald Regan in the 1980s.

SDI was a plan to fill the skies with orbiting anti-missile systems that would have been able to intercept and neutralise incoming ICBMs, should their ever be any.

Although it was not implemented, primarily due to the fact that the technology simply wasn't available at the time, I have no doubt that as time has passed, key elements of this system are now actually in place, albeit covertly.

China, as an emerging superpower has also dabbled in the militarisation of space. They have plenty of orbiting reconnaissance satellites had have reportedly tested some offensive "anti-satellite" technologies to good effect.

So why am I writing a column about this today?

Well it was prompted by this story run by CNN and this image tweeted by Trump.

It seems that the USA's somewhat covert militarisation of space has now become an overt one. Not only have they established "Space Command" as the 11th combatant unit of the US military but they're actually happy to demonstrate some of its capabilities to the world.

What do I think about this?

Well I think it is inevitable but very disappointing.

How is it that we can keep an entire continent (Antarctica) military-free (as a result of the Antarctic Treaty of 1961) -- but we can't do the same for space?

How is it that I can't fly a cheap plastic toy drone over *anyone's* property without their permission -- but the USA, Russia, China and others can fly their (possibly weaponised) satellites over *my* head without anyone blinking an eye or uttering a single sylable of complaint?

C'est la vie eh?

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