Defense: We need clean Anti-Satellite Weapons! (Part 1)


Note: This is the first post of a multi-part series.


It seems someeee people are hellbent on launching war into low Earth orbit. And, this is total SUCKAGE, because it threatens to render Low Earth Orbit (LEO) unusable for peaceful purposes. The severe all-caps kind of suckage - SUCKAGE.

Ever read While scrolling through the site one day (in the merry merry month of May):

“Maintaining space as a peaceful domain is a long-held objective going back to America’s earliest days on orbit… While the U.S. would like to prevent conflict from escalating to space, many of our adversaries do not share this goal. Instead, they see developing and fielding capabilities to hold our systems on orbit at risk as an opportunity to gain decisive advantages.”
The anti-satellite test ban must not undermine deterrence
By Gen. Kevin Chilton (ret.)

Nearer Gen. Chilton’s conclusion:

“We must respond to the world as it is, not as we wish it were. This demands empowering leaders with a full set of options to deter and, if necessary, dominate a fight in space. This includes the ability to hold enemy satellites and associated systems at risk.”
The anti-satellite test ban must not undermine deterrence
By Gen. Kevin Chilton (ret.)

No words.

Not everyone agrees space is reserved for peaceful purposes

Sadly, I totally agree with the author’s premise. We in the U.S. think of space differently than others. Most Americans think of space as something that was “won” and a lifetime ago. A “special” place, reserved for peace, love, and billionaires.

As we’ve seen recently the Earth is anything but at peace. Some countries are fighting for their very existence (or believe they are). OF COURSE they’ll fight anywhere they can gain an advantage. Space included.

This is insane:

“The Biden administration’s announcement Monday that it will no longer test destructive anti-satellite weapons sets the stage for ‘meaningful discussions’ at a United Nations open-ended working group meeting next month to recommend principles of responsible behavior in space…” …
Vice President Kamala Harris … said the U.S. hopes other nations will follow suit.
US to encourage other nations to join ban on anti-satellite weapons testing
By Courtney Albon


It’s the responsible thing to do, but it’s insane. If this works, then our politicians can eliminate armed robberies! “How?”, you ask. “We’re asking police to abandon their weapons and calling on criminals to follow suit”. Pretty much the same thing.

“If fish had guns we’d be dodging bullets.”
-Dennis Leary


The U.S. announcement was greeted a bit skeptically in India (who conducted a destructive Anti-Satellite test in 2019):

“First, the ban is on the testing of debris-producing ASATs. It isn’t a pledge, nonetheless, to [abstain] from utilizing DA-ASATs [Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite Missiles].
.. Second, the ban doesn’t forestall the US from conducting DA-ASAT assessments in non-destructive modes or at excessive altitudes.
.. Lastly, the ban doesn’t make any point out of a co-orbital ASATs or the problem of bodily interference with different satellites in orbit. .. Thus, by rigorously constraining its declaration, the US has positioned itself such that it continues to protect and enhance its benefits in counterspace capabilities…”
How should India respond to the US’s unilateral ASAT test ban?

This sounds like an accusation that the U.S. is continuing a militarization of space under the guise of arms control.. They do not sound convinced.


The Chinese Foreign Ministry, who’s official position has long been that the U.S. “sucks”, also sounds a bit skeptical.

“The US announced that it would bar tests of ground-based direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons. But why not announce that it will not use such weapons? Why not announce to stop testing air-based, co-orbital and other types of anti-satellite weapons, and stop anti-missile testing of anti-satellite nature? Why not commit itself to banning the use of force against outer space objects?
China advocates peaceful use of outer space…”
“As early as 2008, China and Russia jointly submitted a draft treaty on arms control in outer space… including kinetic energy anti-satellite missile testing…. However, this proposal has long been opposed by the US side.
We hope the US will truly assume its due responsibility as a major country, … [and] stop the hypocritical practice of expanding unilateral military superiority in the name of arms control…”
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on April 19, 2022

The first question, why the U.S. did not announce a ban on using DA-ASAT weapons is a very fair question. That would have been a meaningful commitment (wisdom aside). The following questions about other ASAT weapons are silly. Was he able to keep a straight face while asking them? The goal of the measures the U.S. announced is to reduce the growth of debris orbiting Earth. The other ASAT capabilities he asked about are not significant debris generators.

If China is sooo worried about peaceful use of space and space debris, and totally isn’t working on any co-orbital ASAT weapons at all, then they should take their Shijian-21 space tug, and START CLEANING.

But the point is, the announcement wasn’t exactly greeted by a solemn declaration to follow suit by the Chinese. It was an accusation that the U.S. is continuing a militarization of space under the guise of arms control. China does not sound convinced.

Debris from a 2007 Chinese DA-ASAT missile test (Satellite COSPAR 1999-025A)


It’s obvious why Russia destroyed its own satellite on November 15, just 100 days before the Russian Ground Forces crossed the border into Ukraine, right? Just to piss off astronauts, am I right? Could be… Or, an alternative motivation: establish a credible anti-satellite deterrent, and thus dissuade attacks on Russian satellites during the upcoming war. That goal in mind, think they care about international outrage over their test? They do not. Outrage only confirms it had the desired effect.

US: “Oh no, debris might hit the ISS! You bastards!”
Russia: “Excellent…”

Hopefully the timing of the U.S. announcement was not intended to dissuade Russia from a repeat performance during the conflict. Why would they? The Russians already proved their point. They do not need to do it again. It was not a “test”. It was a demonstration.

Debris from a 2021 Russian DA-ASAT missile demonstration (Satellite COSPAR ID 1982-092A)

Halting US destructive testing is still the right thing to do.

And yet, a unilateral halt to destructive anti-satellite weapons testing is the 100% right thing to do even if done unilaterally…

Aside from the fact the “tests” are not needed…. It is because we can’t keep blowing stuff up in space whenever we want. By “destructive” tests, we’re talking about weapons that destroy a target by smashing into it at high speed, using their kinetic energy to “forcibly decommission it” (blow it up). And, we’re talking about Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite Missiles (DA-ASAT). These are missiles fired from land, sea, or air that ascend to orbital altitudes with surplus kinetic energy to shred a target into pieces. Debris pieces, some large (whole solar panels), some smaller (the size of a bolt, etc), and some teeny tiny, the size of rice grains, grains of salt, covid-19 particles, quarks, who knows.

In space, tiny objects, tiny little parts of debris from live DA-ASAT tests can pack huge kinetic energies that in-turn destroy accidental targets. The debris itself becomes a kinetic energy weapon, a very loose cannon.

An object in stable Low Earth Orbit has a velocity around 8 kilometers/second. Nothing sits still, it’s all moving - fast. Hitting something head-on means the relative velocity is twice over - so, 16 kilometers/second.

Math attack!

The energy of a Low Earth Orbit collision

Imagine hitting something head-on at a clip of 8,000 m/sec in opposite directions. Physics tells us kinetic energy is proportional to the SQUARE of the velocity… Which is already starting at 16,000 m/sec (relative).

Kinetic energy is proportional to the velocity squared

To compute the energy in standard SI units we can use mass in kilograms and velocity in meters/second.

Say we’re talking about a medium sized bolt, about 50 grams (0.050 kilograms). A head on collision, with both objects moving at a relative velocity of 16,000 meters/second.

E = 1/2 (0.05) (16000) (16000) = 6,400,000 joules.

Do the math, and we find - if this 50gm bolt smashes into us at 16,000 m/sec it’s packing a 6,400,000 joule punch, which is equivalent to 1.5 kg of TNT. That’s a lot, for a small space.

A bullet the size of a dumbbell walks into a bar

An average bullet travels at 760 meters/second. So, how big would a bullet need to be to pack a 6,400,000 joule punch?

6,400,000 = 1/2 (mass) (760)(760)
mass = 22.16 kg.

22.16 kg? Which is 48.85 lbs. Can that possibly be right? If I’m wrong, someone please point it out.

Imagine a colliding with a 50 lb dumbbell that’s moving as fast as a speeding bullet. It’s even worse because the bolt distributes all that energy into a much smaller area. Imagine you’re peacefully using space, floating around in your space capsule counting your billions… when a 50 lb dumbbell SMASHES into your window at the speed of a bullet. Even the ISS is not designed to survive such impacts - it can sustain “pea sized” impacts. Armor that could withstand a bolt would be too heavy to fly. Maybe we should make “safety satellites” that disintegrate into peas, like “safety glass” used on cars.

Think about destroying a satellite with a missile. How many satellite and missile chunks the size of a bolt can you imagine? I can imagine a lot, but I have a vivid imagination. Each bolt-sized shard of debris is the death of a spacecraft if ever the two are married in Low Earth Orbit.

But there’s collision alerts, and avoidance maneuvers

The more junk is in orbit, the more likely it is that chaotic interactions - other collisions - will render predictions moot. When that bolt is 1/3 the way around the world, a tiny collision there can shift its trajectory 100’s of kilometers by the time it reaches you. It can go from a 0% chance of collision to directly in your path. Think about it:

What distance does a Low Earth Orbit object travel in 10 minutes?
(10 minutes)(60 seconds/minute)(8 kilometers/second) = 4,800 kilometers.

That’s 1/3 the diameter of Earth. Say this bolt experiences a teeny tiny collision 10 minutes prior to arriving at your capsule window. Its trajectory could be altered by 100s of kilometers. Suddenly, what wasn’t going to hit you is 10 minutes away from ending you. Worst of all, the dang thing was set in motion via a deliberate test by people seemingly indifferent to your fate.

And even if you’re warned, fuel for station-keeping and collision avoidance is very limited. It’s can be a limiting factor for mission duration. Too much dodging space junk and you’ll be back home before you planned. In part 2 of this series we’ll programmatically pull down collision alerts for the last 30 days and see there’s a LOT of them.

Kessler Syndrome

We’ve all heard of Kessler Syndrome, right? The best way to describe it is nuclear fission in the sky - break one thing open and its constituents go on to break more things open - in a runaway chain reaction until everything blows up. Let’s call it “satellite fission”, k? It’s not a quick process like nuclear fission, it happens in slow motion, over the course of years. But once it does, Low Earth Orbit becomes vastly less accessible.

Kessler Syndrome: Satellite fission, a runaway chain reaction

Okay okay okay okay… we see the stakes are huge.

In the above linked post, Gen. Chilton cedes we cannot continue blowing up stuff in space, but expresses his belief that a credible ASAT capability dissuade adversaries from attacking by virtue of MAD - “Mutually Assured Destruction”. In many ways, DA-ASAT weapons are like nukes - too horrible to use by civilized standards. It’s arguable whether MAD applies in this context, but is an ASAT weapon that’s too horrible to use a credible deterrent?

There are several broad categories of ASAT weapons based on today’s technology. In addition to DA-ASAT missiles, other categories are: Co-Orbital weapons, Directed Energy (DEW) weapons, and Electronics Warfare (EW) weapons. The latter, Electronics Warfare weapons, typically disrupt targets without damaging them. The story is similar for Directed Energy Weapons. They’re primarily disruptive, although with power increases such weapons may become destructive. The co-orbital category is a catch-all for capabilities to maneuver a vehicle proximate to a target and disrupt/damage it. One example would be a “tug” that forcibly relocates an enemy satellite to render it unusable for it’s purpose. China, Russia, and the U.S. are thought to have some co-orbital capabilities. China flexed them for all to see, with their Shijian-21.

What if some nations don’t want to be “responsible”?

“Both Chinese and Russian military doctrine now capture their view of space as critical to modern warfare. And they consider the use of space and counter space capabilities as a means of reducing U.S. military effectiveness and for winning future wars,” said Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, the chief operations officer for the U.S. Space Force. “We’ve seen destructive debris generated by anti-satellite missile tests, [radio-frequency] interference, cyber attacks on terrestrial space nodes and provocative on-orbit anti-satellite demonstrations, such as firing projectiles.”
As Satellite Images Reshape Conflict, Worries Mount About Keeping Them Safe

On top of that, the Russians currently believe they are fighting for their existence.

But, with respect to the U.S.’s defense in space it really doesn’t matter what the other side does. The U.S. needs a credible ASAT threat that’s not too horrible to actually use, or it has no deterrent effect. And having no deterrent begs an attack during a future conflict.

MAD breaks unless each side has a credible deterrent, which, short of armageddon, excludes DA-ASATs for “responsible” nations.

Here comes trouble. The U.S. conducts a destructive DA-ASAT test in 1985, launching an ASM-135 from a F-15.

Surely “we” and “they” already have “cleaner” ASAT alternatives. It’s just top secret, right?

If “they” or “we” already have super-duper ASAT weapons secretly, someone needs to go learn more about Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD fails if you keep your deterrent a secret!

For MAD to work, you show everyone what you’re capable of and only keep the details of how it works secret. The more you can demonstrate you have the capability the better the deterrent. (Such as “tests” that are actually “demonstrations”.)

“Uncle Sam wants his opponents to know what he’s got in the works because that’s the only way new weapons can be an effective deterrent for future aggression.”
Alex Hollings

Correct. This has always been a principal of Mutually Assured Destruction. When one side “holds their cards close to their chest” and a “poker face”, MAD breaks. The other side must assume the worst or run the risk of singly-assured destruction. You do NOT want the other side assuming the worst of you, do you?

So, what’s not secret?

None of this post is a revelation or new thinking to anyone who’s been monitoring this space. I am neither better informed nor smarter. The bigger powers are operating or exploring capabilities across the board. And for the most part everyone mostly knows what the others are up to.

The press portrayed this event as a “surprise”. But was it?:

“This activity culminated in Shijian-21 docking with the defunct Beidou-2 G2 navigation satellite and towing it above the crowded belt of geostationary orbit some 36,000 kilometers above the equator.”
China’s Shijian-21 towed dead satellite to a high graveyard orbit
by Andrew Jones

NO. This event was NOT a surprise. It occurred in 2022. The 2021 edition of Global Counterspace Capabilities made it clear this was coming:

“There is strong evidence indicating that China has a sustained effort to develop a broad range of counterspace capabilities. China has conducted multiple tests of technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in both low earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO) that could lead to a co-orbital ASAT capability.”
Global Counterspace Capabilities 04/2021 (Executive Summary)

The report cited above was developed by the Secure World Foundation which estimates ASAT capabilities of the world’s space-faring nations and produces annual Global Counterspace Capabilities reports.

Global Counterspace Capabilities recognizes several categories of ASAT capabilities, with sub-categories by orbital category/altitude:

  • Direct-Ascent (DA-ASAT)
    Ground, air, or sea launched missiles that use their kinetic energy to destroy a target, but are not placed into orbit.
    • LEO
    • MEO/GEO
  • Co-orbital
    Weapons that are inserted into orbit and maneuver into close proximity with a target to attack it.
    • Rendezvous and proximity capabilities (RPO)
      • LEO
      • MEO/GEO
  • Electronic Warfare (EW)
    EW weapons us RF energy to disrupt communications or navigation of targets
  • Directed Energy (DEW)
    These weapons bombard a target with focused energy (lasers, particle beams, or subatomic particles)
  • Cyber
    Deploying software that compromises or disruptions an adversary’s computer system/services
  • Space Situational Awareness (SSA)
    Ability to detect, track, characterize potential threats/targets

An estimate of current capabilities gleaned from the 2022 report (US = U.S, RU = Russia, CN = China, etc):

LEO Direct Ascent C B B C
MEO/GEO Direct Ascent C C
LEO Co-Orbital C B C
MEO/GEO Co-Orbital C C C
Directed Energy C B C C
Electronic Warfare A A B ? C C C
Space Situational Awareness A B B C C C C C ? C C
A Used in conflict
B Operational/Significant Testing
C R&D/Prototype Testing
LEO Low Earth Orbit (typical: 800 km - 1,600 km)
MEO Medium Earth Orbit (typical: 5,000 km - 12,000 km)
GEO Geosynchronous Orbit (35,000 km)

The report offered a sober assessment of Chinese military ambitions in Space:

“Although official Chinese statements on space warfare and weapons have remained consistently aligned to the peaceful purposes of outer space, privately they have become more nuanced. China has recently designated space as a military domain, and military writings state that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.”
Global Counterspace Capabilities 04/2022 (Executive Summary)

Russia is working on co-orbital capabilities as well, it’s not just China.

“Russia has been testing technologies for RPO in both LEO and GEO that could lead to or support a co-orbital ASAT capability, and some of those efforts have links to a Cold War-era LEO co-orbital ASAT program. Additional evidence suggests Russia may have started a new co-orbital ASAT program called Burevestnik, potentially supported by a surveillance and tracking program called Nivelir. The technologies developed by these programs could also be used for non-aggressive applications, including surveilling and inspecting foreign satellites, and most of the on-orbit RPO activities done to date matches these missions. However, Russia has deployed two “sub-satellites” at high velocity, which suggests at least some of their LEO RPO activities are of a weapons nature.”
Global Counterspace Capabilities 04/2022 (Executive Summary)

Of course, the U.S. is working on co-orbital capabilities in addition to DEW. However, the U.S. is has not fully developed either one:

“The United States does not have an acknowledged program to develop co-orbital ASAT capabilities. However, the United States possesses the technological capability to develop a co-orbital ASAT capability in a short period of time if it chooses to.”
Global Counterspace Capabilities 04/2022 (Executive Summary)

“Over the past several decades, the United States has conducted significant research and development on the use of ground-based high energy lasers for counterspace and other purposes. We assess that there are no technological roadblocks to the U.S. operationalizing them for counterspace applications.”
Global Counterspace Capabilities 04/2022 (Full Report)

There is no public evidence that the United States has a space-based DEW capability. However, … the Space Force has expressed an interest in a directed energy architecture.
Global Counterspace Capabilities 04/2022 (Full Report)

If the report is accurate and the U.S. is truly behind China/Russia in co-orbital and Directed Energy Weapons, why? Neither are as “dirty” as DA-ASAT weapons. If needed, they could be used without being irresponsible. Thus, they are both credible deterrents in situations DA-ASAT is not. So then why does the U.S. appear to be behind in alternatives (at least, according to the Secure World Foundation)? The U.S. had a great lead, even recently…

And, if the answer is that the U.S. isn’t actually behind… That it’s secretly ahead, it has super-duper capabilities no one knows about. Then, why? Secrets have no deterrent value. Secret weapons only become useful when deterrence fails and you’re in a conflict.

How does the U.S. stack rank these priorities?:

  1. Avoid a conflict
  2. Win a conflict

Which one is the top priority? Is the answer consistent with the answers to the questions above about deterrence?

This is what you need to know:

  • DA-ASAT tests add debris to Low Earth Orbit
  • Debris threatens peaceful access to Low Earth Orbit - it’s a serious problem
  • The U.S. has vowed to halt all debris-generating tests and hopes others will follow suit
  • Because “responsible” nations may find DA-ASAT weapons too reprehensible to actually use in a conflict, they are not a credible deterrent
  • A nation that has no credible deterrent invites an attack during a conflict. An attack by DA-ASAT would create more debris.
  • The U.S. has not demonstrated it has leadership in alternatives to DA-ASAT such as Co-Orbital, or Directed Energy capabilities.

Is it just me, or does something not add up?

Deliberate events (self destructions, weapons tests) are the top cause of debris that remains in orbit (42.8%)

Before I go, a tangential rant about a statement someone made on Ukraine (you were warned!)

Wanna ride on the tangential side? Great! I do need to take issue with a particular quote in Tucker’s article ("As Satellite Images Reshape Conflict, Worries Mount About Keeping Them Safe"). Keep in mind, I’m normally a “yes, and…" type, but that’s not always possible…

The availability of satellite imagery they could share and talk about made it easier for the Biden administration to rapidly declassify their analysis of Russia’s intentions and actions, said Robert Moultrie, the defense undersecretary for intelligence. “That decision was made by the commander in chief: a gutsy decision to say we’re going to disclose some of the most sensitive sense intelligence that we have… It has worked. I think it has helped turn the tide.”
As Satellite Images Reshape Conflict, Worries Mount About Keeping Them Safe

LOL, what? I don’t even. I don’t even know where to begin here.

Firstly, the entire article is about publicly available satellite images. (By the way, it’s not exactly easy for the private sector to just launch a satellite with cameras pointed at Earth, but hold that thought until the end*). If the Russian intentions required a “gutsy decision” to “rapidly declassify” “sensitive sense intelligence” it totally undercuts the gist of the article. It’s saying - just because you can see where everyone is, now, it really doesn’t matter… You can’t determine anything from public data alone, you need the U.S.’s classified Intelligence. If the gist of the article were true there wouldn’t need to be any melodrama around disclosure. Just open one of the private-sector images showing the Russian troop buildup, add an arrow that says “Russian forces r here” and attach it to an email to Ukraine. Done.

But that’s not where my biggest qualm is. It’s the conclusion above, “It has worked”. I’m glad it worked so everyone can pat themselves on the back, but can I ask, then, how exactly they’re defining “worked”? Because, we foresaw four possible outcomes in Ukraine:

  1. Conflict averted diplomatically. Everyone wins.
  2. Quick Ukrainian victory
  3. Long, bloody, drawn out stalemate costing everyone involved dearly, regardless of outcome. Everyone loses.
  4. Quick Russian victory

How exactly does U.S. policy stack-rank those possibilities? Myself, I’d rank them as listed above, except a quick Russian victory may be preferable to a deadly, costly “no one wins” outcome.

And, which one of those outcomes is the U.S. position that we’re seeing? It can’t be #1, or #2, or #4… That leaves #3. We are arguably seeing the worst possible outcome.

And, the “disclosures” apparently did not modify anyone’s behavior - Russian OR Ukrainian. So how, in the heck, do you say this “gutsy decision” to disclose what’s supposedly publicly available - “worked”? We’re watching the worst possible outcome unfold!! And not only that, it’s a conflict that credibly threatens to go Nuclear, which would set a new post-World War 2 precedent that sometimes nukes are okay. Not okay!! And not only that, the conflict credibly threatens to embroil NATO and escalate to become the next all-out global conflict, WW III. Then what exactly “worked”? It’s hard to “yes, and…” this. “Yes, and your next performance review rating is a ‘Must Improve’ and here’s a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’”…?

Not that anyone should listen to my opinion, by trade I’m a game developer, which isn’t even related to my formal education (which is Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering). I may enjoy my armchairs, but I still have a right to be more than a little irritated over apparent self-congratulation aboard a slow motion train-wreck tumbling towards a thermonuclear dumpster fire. Or worse.

Hate ending on a sad. Awkwardly changing the subject… in other news, it turns out the universe could stop expanding ‘remarkably soon’, we have way too much corn, and a 13-year-old just got a college degree in physics.

* May we check your license for that camera?

If you’ve planned a Cubesat build & launch you’ll know the second you strap a camera or other sensor to your Earth-orbiting satellite the launch company won’t launch it unless you have a NOAA Remote Sensing License. (If your satellite doesn’t have sensors the launch team will require a letter explicitly stating so.) The NOAA license takes 120+ days and even SpaceX does not have a license. Satellite imagery isn’t quite as simple as paying SpaceX to launch a camera into orbit. Which, has nothing to do with destructive ASAT testing, … I suppose.

Next in this 2-part series

In the next post in this series we’ll programmatically get some live data on all this test debris in orbit… and the near-miss alerts the cause. We’ll use cURL, C#, Node.js, C++, Unreal Engine, … you name it ;)

Next Post
Defense: We need clean Anti-Satellite Weapons! (Part 2 - code tutorials)

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