The US Department of Defense is actively investing in the development and operational testing of On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) spacecraft. The publicly stated purposes are benign, but the unspoken reality may be another thing entirely.
OSAM Spacecraft Capabilities
Spacecraft that are built for servicing satellites will typically possess capabilities to approach, inspect, and interact with other satellites in orbit. While these capabilities are intended for beneficial purposes such as repairing malfunctioning satellites, refuelling them, or removing them at the end of their life cycle, they could theoretically be used in aggressive and harmful ways.
Offensive Usage of Satellite Servicing Spacecraft
This section reviews the potential offensive applications of satellite servicing spacecraft. From physically tampering with other satellites, instigating cyber attacks, acting as co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, carrying out kinetic impact attacks, to deploying subsatellites for offensive tasks, the possibilities are as vast as they are concerning.
|Satellite Tampering||A servicing spacecraft could be used to physically tamper with a satellite. It could cut wires, obscure sensors, or otherwise physically damage the satellite. While this would be a direct form of attack, the tampering might also be subtler, such as changing the satellite's orientation or orbit in a way that degrades its performance.|
|Cyber Attack||If a servicing spacecraft has the ability to interface with a satellite's computer systems, it could potentially be used to carry out a cyber attack, injecting malicious software that could disable the satellite, corrupt its data, or even allow the attacker to take control of the satellite.|
|Co-orbital ASAT||The spacecraft could function as a co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. This means it shares an orbit with a target satellite, and can approach the target and disable or destroy it if commanded to do so. This could involve direct collision or, if the spacecraft is equipped with a robotic arm or similar device, it could potentially disable the target in a more targeted way.|
|Kinetic Impact||If equipped with the ability to carry and release objects, a servicing spacecraft could potentially be used to carry out kinetic impact attacks, releasing objects in the path of other satellites at high relative velocities.|
|Deployment of Subsatellites||If the servicing spacecraft has the capability to deploy small subsatellites or drones, these could be used to carry out a range of attacks on other satellites, from kinetic impacts to cyber attacks.|
Defensive Usage of Satellite Servicing Spacecraft
Servicing spacecraft could theoretically be utilized to protect space assets and ensure the safety and functionality of satellites. Here are some potential defensive functionalities:
|Satellite Repair and Maintenance||The primary function of servicing spacecraft is to repair, maintain, and refuel satellites, and this can serve as a form of defense in itself. By repairing or maintaining satellites that have been damaged, either by natural causes or potentially as the result of an attack, these servicing spacecraft can help to keep critical space-based infrastructure operational.|
|Debris Removal||One of the major threats to satellites is space debris. Servicing spacecraft could potentially be used to remove or redirect space debris, preventing it from causing damage to operational satellites.|
|Satellite Shielding||In theory, a servicing spacecraft could be used to physically shield a satellite from an impending attack, either by placing itself between the satellite and the threat, or by deploying some form of physical shield.|
|Cybersecurity Measures||If equipped with the appropriate technology, servicing spacecraft could potentially enhance the cybersecurity of the satellites they service, implementing measures to protect against cyber attacks.|
|Repositioning Satellites||A servicing spacecraft could potentially change a satellite's orbit in order to avoid an imminent threat, such as an incoming anti-satellite weapon or space debris.|
|Deploying Countermeasures||In a more advanced scenario, servicing spacecraft could be equipped to deploy countermeasures against incoming threats. These could include things to defeat tracking systems such as, electronic countermeasures to jam or spoof incoming weapons, or even small interceptor drones to physically intercept the threats.|
|Satellite Decommissioning and Safe Disposal||A servicing spacecraft could help in the decommissioning and safe disposal of old or damaged satellites, either by moving them into a safe “graveyard” orbit, de-orbiting them to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, or potentially even recycling their parts for use in other space-based systems.|
It's important to note that using servicing spacecraft as weapons in these ways may violate the Outer Space Treaty. Moreover, aggressive actions could escalate conflicts and create substantial amounts of space debris, posing threats to all space-faring nations. It's therefore in the best interest of all countries to use such technologies responsibly and peacefully.
Outer Space Treaty: Arms Control Provisions
The treaty forbids countries from deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in outer space. The term “weapons of mass destruction” is not defined, but it is commonly understood to include nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The treaty, however, does not prohibit the launching of ballistic missiles, which could be armed with WMD warheads, through space. The treaty repeatedly emphasizes that space is to be used for peaceful purposes, leading some analysts to conclude that the treaty could broadly be interpreted as prohibiting all types of weapons systems, not just WMD, in outer space.
The treaty's key arms control provisions are in Article IV. States-parties commit not to:
Source: Arms Control Association 2020
- Place in orbit around the Earth or other celestial bodies any nuclear weapons or objects carrying WMD.
- Install WMD on celestial bodies or station WMD in outer space in any other manner.
- Establish military bases or installations, test “any type of weapons,” or conduct military exercises on the moon and other celestial bodies.
Envisioning the Future of Satellite Servicing Spacecraft
As our dependence upon space-based assets continues to increase, the role of satellite servicing spacecraft will undoubtedly evolve and expand. These platforms, currently valued for their ability to extend the life of satellites through repair and refueling, may soon become integral components in the broader space security and defense architecture.
The future could see servicing spacecraft fulfilling their traditional roles while also serving as advanced defensive shields, protecting valuable space assets from threats ranging from space debris to cyber attacks and even potential weapon systems. With advancements in AI and robotics, these spacecraft might become even more autonomous and capable, providing faster and more efficient servicing and defense capabilities.
However, as servicing spacecraft become more capable, the risk that they could be used offensively increases. This poses serious challenges for the international community, which will need to develop new laws and norms to govern the use of these technologies.
In the face of these challenges, transparency and international cooperation will be essential. Countries will need to work together to develop regulations that prevent the misuse of servicing spacecraft while allowing their beneficial uses to be fully realized. This might involve sharing information about the activities of servicing spacecraft, establishing guidelines for safe and responsible behavior in space, and perhaps even developing new mechanisms for international oversight and enforcement.
Beyond these policy considerations, significant technical challenges also lie ahead. Ensuring that servicing spacecraft can operate safely and reliably in the harsh environment of space, developing cybersecurity measures to protect these spacecraft from cyber attacks, and creating systems that can respond quickly and effectively to threats will all be critical areas of research and development.
Despite these challenges, the future of satellite servicing spacecraft is full of potential. With the right combination of technological innovation, policy development, and international cooperation, these spacecraft could become powerful tools for maintaining and enhancing the security and sustainability of our space-based infrastructure.