Why satellites would be crucial if a war broke out in space

France and the US have both recently launched space commands to defend its satellites against espionage, jamming, cyber attacks, etc. But don’t imagine that spaceships equipped with lasers or super-powered cannons like in Star Wars will be flying in space anytime soon. Because there are actually unsuspected weapons already in orbit: satellites. In modern wars, “the satellite is an essential component that can even be used as a weapon. And this will probably be more and more true in the future”, assesses Stéphane Mazouffre, research director at the ICARE laboratory – for the “Institut Aerothermal Combustion Reactivity Environment” – from CNRS, interviewed by Business Insider France.

But if a war broke out, the scientist argued, no country would risk sending a missile from Earth to destroy an enemy satellite in low orbit: “No one will, because destroying an enemy satellite would create an innumerable amount of space debris, which would mess up orbit and potentially affect your own satellites.” In late March, India destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile, creating hundreds of pieces of space debris. This initiative was welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Norendra Modi because it made it possible to show that India was “a space power”, but was condemned by the United States and certain space junk experts, among others, because of its dangerousness.

According to the International Treaty on the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, ratified in 1967, placing nuclear weapons or any other type of weapon of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, on the Moon or in any other sky is strictly prohibited. body or to store them in the room. But a telecommunications, positioning, observation or guidance satellite is not a nuclear weapon and is not considered a weapon in itself, although, as Stéphane Mazouffre explains, it can become one under certain circumstances.

In fact, a satellite can be used to obtain information, disrupt another, or even disable it without causing it to explode. “You can approach your own satellite very close to the enemy’s, to take pictures and learn more about what he is doing, for example,” said Stéphane Mazouffre. By getting very close, “it perturbs it gravitationally and it can disrupt its maneuvers. We can even imagine capturing it and de-orbiting it, although it remains very complicated,” he added.

One satellite can interfere with another to put it out of service

At the end of July, the Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly had talked about powerful lasers deployed from our satellites or from our patrolling nano-satellites to protect French satellites. “The idea of ​​lasers is not to punch a satellite, but to blind them, point their cameras or observation systems, at an observation satellite. The same can be done to distort communications to a telecommunications satellite. For a GPS satellite, we could send waves to disrupt the atomic clocks and put them out of order. We can even imagine a satellite positioning itself right in front of an enemy satellite and ejecting particles to create a drag force and deorbit it. falling and disintegrating as it enters the earth’s atmosphere.”

Asked about the likelihood that this type of attack will one day take place, the director of research at the ICARE laboratory said that he did not believe much, “because all these maneuvers remain complex, it will require a lot of resources”, especially more and more. satellites operate within constellations. “Then it becomes even more complicated to take down a whole network of small satellites,” said the plasma propulsion researcher.

The major powers are also preparing to intercept hypersonic missiles

By equipping itself with a space command, France, like the United States, could also prepare not for a space conflict, but on land, which would involve the use of missiles. According to Stéphane Mazouffre, the major space powers are developing their surveillance and self-defense capabilities in space to prepare for the arrival of hypersonic missiles. Unlike conventional warheads, whose trajectory and target are known once launched, the supersonic missiles that the US, China or Russia are working on should be able to “go very fast (at a speed greater than more than 6000 km per hour ), while following an undefined trajectory. The missile is orbiting the planet and at some point it will come down, and we don’t know when it will come down or where,” he said. The deployment of space commands should enable these countries to develop means of tracking and intercepting these future hypersonic missiles.

In late January, France launched a program of supersonic gliders called V-Max (for experimental maneuvering vehicles) to catch up with China, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. A French hypersonic glider demonstrator could fly in 2021.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider France

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