Recently the news has been full of stories about drones and how they will impact the world. While I feel this topic is very important, there is another topic with even more significance to human development. The topic of which I speak is of course “space based weaponry”. While the official line is that there are treaties preventing nuclear warheads in space, there are other weapons which we could potentially see in our earth’s orbit. Much of what I will cover is in theory, but some of it has been tested before. As we see it now, it is not a clear case of whether or not they are up there now, but knowing that military’s around the world have and are testing platforms in our orbit.
As a futurist, I understand that technology will inevitably come out, the reason I like to talk so much about this is because I hope to be a voice of reason and a reminder about what humanity has done with powerful technology in the past. I would like to avoid such mistakes going forward so I hope my words inspire cooler heads to prevail. I do not want to make these weapons “cool” or “awesome” but rather discuss how this would impact the world politically. Hopefully a lot of you out there feel the same as I do because I would rather scientist focus on other more important technologies involving space travel, mining, and defensive measures against space’s many dangers.
To start, I’m going to go over what I consider to be smaller weapons systems designed to protect a satellite from enemies or destroy space based targets, or more bluntly put, anti-satellite weapons. The Soviet Union designed and created a satellite named Almaz starting in the early 1960’s. This lead to an integration in another program named Salyut programme. These 3 satellites, named Salyut were also referred to as OPS 1, 2, and 3. These were reconnaissance drones in orbit armed with a self lubricating, 23mm Nudelman rapid-fire cannon. These were mounted onto the satellite for defensive and offensive purposes. These destructive tools had a maximum rate of fire of around 850 rounds per minute and shot 23x115mm caliber rounds with a muzzle velocity of 690 m/s. That’s some serious fire-power. A fourth OPS satellite, OPS-4, would have also been equipped with Shchit-2, which was reported to have a duo of projectile systems. Perhaps rockets were to be employed on this project? Supposedly there are no photo’s of this weapon’s system so I cannot confirm its existence in actual orbit. It is believed it was never deployed. The entire Almaz program did not become all it was meant to become, but the ideas have been tested as far back as the 1960’s.
More advanced space-to-space weapons were also tested by the Soviets. In the late 1980’s, the Soviets were set to launch the Polyus spacecraft into orbit. The Polyus, also known as Skif-DM, was equipped with a megawatt carbon dioxide laser system designed to be an anti-satellite system. Carbon Dioxide Lasers were invented by Kumar Patel, from India, in 1964. Mr. Patel worked for Bell Labs at the time of this invention. Just a few short years later it found itself being launched into orbit attached to a space ship. This vessel however did not make it into orbit as a faulty guidance computer failed as the ship separated from the rocket. It was meant to spin 180 degrees and launch itself into orbit, instead, it did a 360 degree turn and burned up in the atmosphere. This was during the height of The Space Race, if there are any remnants of that same “race” going on today, I’m sure we’ll find out just how far this has all come.
Next, I’ll be providing details on another type of space based weapons technology which emerged from the Space Race and Cold War. Earth-to-space weapons systems were developed for a number of reasons, but I feel there is one that stands out. If you’ve ever lived in the country side like myself, you have probably heard of Wild Life population control, where certain hunters are granted permission to hunt and kill certain over populated animals in the local eco-system. I know that sounds way off topic, but I think it perfectly describes The Kessler Syndrome.
The Kessler Syndrome, also called the Kessler Effect, collisional cascading, or ablation cascade, was proposed by a NASA scientist named Donald J. Kessler in 1978. Kessler Syndrome is an event in which the density of objects in low-Earth orbit is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade – each collision generating debris which increases the likelihood of further collisions. This could lead to rendering exploration and the use of satellites unfeasible for a very long time. Earth to Space weapons systems were designed to destroy objects in low-orbit in order to thin out the possibility of these kinds of collisions. In my view, this is a hugely important area of research and love the idea of perfecting satellite technology and use. Much like hunters thinning out the herd, this system is designed to maintain a healthier low-earth orbit environment as newer and better satellites are developed.
Of course this technology is also in the hands of the military, which for obvious reasons have explored the use of inter-continental ballistics, Anti-Satellite weapons, and Kinetic Kill systems. The most famous example of this was proposed by President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983. The Strategic Defense Initiative included a research program dedicated to developing anti-ICBMs defensive systems. These systems would be equipped with kinetic kill, laser, and other ballistic weapons systems and was named Star Wars by those who proposed and funded the program. There were also Space-to-Air satellites designed to employ a high-powered laser to destroy an ICBM launched towards American soil. The entire idea behind this project was to create a defensive space based weapons platform to defend from nuclear missiles launched from other countries.
Another type of space based weapons platform would be called Space-to-Earth weaponry. Orbital bombardment is any attack from space on a ground based target on a planet’s surface. It is believed that there are no such weapons systems in existence, however, this idea is not a result of the latest science fiction movie, there are well-known examples of governments since World War 2, straight through the Cold War, seeking and developing technologies on this level. At this point I want to remind you about why I felt the need to write this article. While I support space based anything, I believe the correct motivations need to be present before launching anything into space involving the use of a weapon. A weapons system with global coverage is not only dangerous, but would fundamentally change life on earth. Not to mention, very expensive, I believe our efforts would be much better put to use in developing technologies to clean our atmosphere, capture incoming asteroids, creating protection from Solar Activity, and exploration.
Though it is believed there are no such systems, I feel it’s important to note that it is known that the National Socialist NAZI party proposed an idea for a so-called “Sun Gun”. Also the Soviets deployed a what they called a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System in 1968 to 1983. Eventually, the Soviets successfully launched a working unit into orbit, but were prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty to place live warheads in space. Later, another Outer Space Treaty was put forth which prohibited the deployment of any system which could use a weapon of mass destruction in a partial orbit. Conventional warheads are still permissible but are not yet proven to be effective. These rely on large tungsten carbide/uranium cermet rods dropped from orbit and use kinetic energy. These types of war-heads have the nick name “Rods from God”.
I wrote this article because I care about the future development of our species. While we enjoy our entertainment, sports programs, and our lives please realize there is another world out there, one where very powerful and very real technologies are being developed and pushed into reality. I don’t often hear very much about these technologies in the news so in an attempt to raise awareness and interest in science and technology I’m writing this article. I suppose if I were to want to ask any question of my readers, I would ask you to think about what you would rather develop just as we begin to reach into the stars. Weapons platforms designed to kill and control human beings or technologies which focus on exploration, transportation, geo-maintenance, and protection? I believe weapons systems can serve a purpose in space, however, I believe it should remain a defensive measure and never offensive. In fact, I would like to see anti-aggression measures put into practical account with technologies based around weaponry. These technologies would make it impossible to use weapons in an aggressive initiation of force. However, once used in a defensive situation, it should be capable of a wide range of capabilities. Namely, the prevention of the Kessler Syndrome.
Scott D. Vogler