back to article New US swarmsats will scatter to avoid space-war strikes

The USA's new "fractionated" swarm satellites - in which groups of small wirelessly-linked modules in orbit will replace today's large spacecraft - will be able to scatter to avoid enemy attacks and then reform into operational clusters. Concept graphic illustrating the 'fractionated' satellite concept. Credit: DARPA Trying …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Prior Art

    Or is nobody else here old enough to remember Defender.

    Smart bomb the buggers ! It's the only way to be sure !

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Wait, what?

    "It has previously been specified that the F6 swarmsat cluster must be contactable even when out of line-of sight from US ground stations or other military comms platforms."

    Erm, that's impossible. If you don't have line-of-sight, you cannot contact without going through another ground station or military comms platform.

    Physics doesn't work that way - the frequencies that bend around the earth do so because they *don't* exit the atmosphere, which makes them slightly useless for contacting sats.

    Unless they just mean that the swarm has to be big enough to cover the entire Earth - though that would take a lot of birds...

    1. Blain Hamon

      The next line, however, reads

      > British satcomms firm Inmarsat was recently awarded a contract to supply the trial F6 swarm with constant broadband access via commercial satellites

      So they are contactable even when out of line-of-sight from US ground stations or other military comms platforms by being in line-of-sight from non-US ground stations or nonmilitary comms platforms. British satcomms counts for both.

    2. Gordon 10

      Missed a sentence in the article

      If you read the inmarsat sentence again. The implication is that it will take a relay feed from another satellite, enough relays and anything is LOS.

    3. Alexander 3

      Indirect Line of Sight.

      "Unless they just mean that the swarm has to be big enough to cover the entire Earth - though that would take a lot of birds..."

      That's where Immarsat comes in. They provide a non-direct line of sight. The article is referring to direct satellite-ground links, which as you say is impossible all the time.

    4. Nexox Enigma

      Should work

      """"It has previously been specified that the F6 swarmsat cluster must be contactable even when out of line-of sight from US ground stations or other military comms platforms."

      Erm, that's impossible. If you don't have line-of-sight, you cannot contact without going through another ground station or military comms platform."""

      I don't actually know anything about how they plan to do it, but that picture in the article pretty clearly shows some higher-altitude comms sats, which they probably don't count as a 'platform.' Anyway, if I already had a comm sat network, I'd sure as hell use them.

    5. Anonymous Coward

      Simple, actually

      Just need to go through a commercial comms platform like the existing sat-phone network. They're pretty high up, so you've got great coverage of a lower-down surveillance/ comms constellation.

      Or, less simply, don't define certain things as comms platforms, i.e. have spaceborne platforms whose primary function is not providing a comms link (like, say, the GPS constellation).

      And doesn't the Ionosphere around Earth play a part in hugely propagating things like CB radio? Couldn't you harness that from the top of the ionosphere as well?

    6. LAGMonkey

      CISCO... in SPACE!!!

      I believe the idea is to use the new Space routers that CISCO launches a while ago. That way you can just ping data off one inmarsat BGAN (Broadband Global Area Netwok) to another and get comms with your swarm from there.

      No need for LOS to your swarm..... simples!

  3. Tom_


    If everyone starts fighting each other in space, won't they just use lasers to counter 'dodging'?

    1. Alexander 3

      Yes, but...

      Spacebourne lasers don't yet exist, while kinetic-kill by missile has been done by (at least?) the US and China. It's worth noting that this ability is a side-effect of satellite fractionation, not the main attraction..

    2. Charles Manning

      Didn't you watch Starwars?

      You can see a laser blast coming towards you and have plenty of time to dodge out the way.

      Anyway they will warn each other via Inmarsat and we all know that radio travels far faster than laser.

  4. Mystic Megabyte

    Drifting off

    While I was reading this article, for some unknown reason , I started to think of Jane Fonda in the intro to Barbarella.

    Meanwhile the Taliban have trained their donkeys to scatter at the sound of a drone.

  5. a53


    Shades of Michael Crichton's "Prey"....

  6. HFoster

    Maybe a waste of effort typing this

    Isn't the use of space for military purposes (firing or testing weapons in space, into space, or from space onto the earth or any celestial body) deemed strictly illegal by the UN?

    Then again, if the past decade has taught us anything, it's no wonder the US want their mil.sats to be able to avoid bomb strikes.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      Space Weapons, Earth Wars

      Close. Article of the Outer Space Treaty* means that the use or positioning of weapons of mass destruction in space at all is strictly forbidden. The use or positioning of conventional weapons on the moon or other celestial bodies is similarly outlawed. However, there is currently a grey area in respect of conventional weapons**, although conventional wisdom says that this remains only because it hasn't been tested, and that the first attempt to violate it will lead to closure of the loophole.

      Of course, these aren't the only issues with putting weapons in space. There's the Registration Convention, which states that you have to log your satellite's unique ID and orbital details in a public record, making it nice and easy to target, and the Liability Convention***, meaning that any act of war is likely to lead to a long international court case.

      So for the time being, we're likely to keep seeing sats used primarily for comms and intel. Officially, at least.

      *Officially, "The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies".

      ** By 'conventional', we generally mean anything non-CBRN, so including cruise missiles, lasers, or rods-from-god. However, some definitions of WMD include sufficiently large masses of HE, so tread carefully.

      *** The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Technically you are correct

      ...except in this scenario, no weapons are hosted or deployed (supposedly), so programming some sats to do an 'eightsome reel' in space is not a military activity, and merely non-aggressive self-defence.

      However, methinks anyone wanting to wipe out the US's military sats - possibly as a first strike - has already resolved themselves to ignoring any UN dictates.

      ..and .we know how effective the UN is at enforcing these anyway <rolls eyes>...

      1. Anonymous Coward

        "..and .we know how effective the UN is at enforcing these anyway <rolls eyes>..."

        ... especially with it's most prominent, never paying its bills member arrogantly ignoring the UN when it's verdict is not in favor of it's'national interests'.

        First the UN headquarters have to go to Brussels, and the US be temporarily dispelled for going to Irak against UN ruling.

        Only then the UN can get it's balls back, and maybe, maybe start making a difference again.

    3. ravenviz Silver badge

      re: Maybe a waste of effort typing this

      Oh I see, it's illegal for aliens to attack!

  7. live2give

    Little did they know they were being watched from afar, by intellects.......

    What good are these satellites against external alien based threats they won't last 2 secs! Get some Nukes and space born lasers and i'll sleep alot better.

  8. Dale 3
    Black Helicopters


    Each little step brings The Machines that much closer to fruition, and that much harder to combat when they eventually develop the self-awareness we are so keen to hand over to them.

  9. Christoph
    Black Helicopters

    "the USA intends to be ready for it anyway"

    The idea is probably "We know it's strictly forbidden by International Law, but we're the USA so that doesn't apply to us. So we're going to make sure that we can do it whenever we want and to anyone we want and they can't retaliate."

    1. F111F
      Paris Hilton

      Running away is illegal?

      The idea is to run away from danger by dispersing out far enough. How would this be considered a) a weapon, or b) illegal? Sheesh, you can't even emulate Monty Python's classic maneuver without getting criticized. Try to come up with a way that saves billion-dollar assets that could make the difference in winning a war, and they jump all over you.

      Paris, for "can't we all just get along"?

  10. Luther Blissett

    In space there is nowhere to hide

    From the Alien Greys. Or the God in the Machine, aka in this case, the back door in the machine.

  11. Tim #3

    On a possibly related note

    Seeing stuff about militarising space reminded me about the X-37B, that pilotless shuttle the yanks launched a few months ago- is it still up there & if so what's it doing?

    1. Annihilator

      X-37B - secret but visible

      It's still up there. Amateur boffins around the globe have tracked it for the sheer challenge of it. What it's doing, well it's well positioned as a spy satellite, but it's anyone's guess... Watch it's progress here:

  12. Dave Murray

    Achilles Heel

    "Inmarsat ... to supply the trial F6 swarm with constant broadband access via commercial satellites"

    So the answer to defeating these satellites will be to knock out Inmarsat's satellites making F6's scatter function useless.

  13. Stuart Halliday

    Can't be done

    These satellites will have to be an awfully lot bigger to hold the extra fuel needed to move about.

    Currently Satellites only carry enough to stop themselves from re-entering orbit or a little to force them into the atmosphere after the end of their life.

    America is just trying scare tactics.

    1. LAGMonkey

      maybe it can be done...

      Maybe these swarm of battle bots will use electric ion drives or other such electric impuse drives that are being tested.

      It didnt say that they had to move "fast" but just that they needed to move away from each other and then back again.

      Elec'y propulsion would be capable of doing that and save on the weight/fuel requirements.


    2. Geoff Campbell Silver badge


      Yes, that was my first thought. Accellerating a couple of tonnes from (effectively) a standstill to fast enough to cover 10km in 5min takes a *lot* of fuel, doubly so as you then have to decellerate the mass again. Then you have to get it back into the swarm when the threat has passed.

      Not going to happen with any current or currently foreseeable future technology.


  14. Cunningly Linguistic


    ...Rupert Murdoch that well armed that the US military are taking action against a hostile satellite takeover?

  15. Jean-Luc
    Black Helicopters

    about the bad ol'd US...

    y'all do recall the Chinese did a sat kill a few years ago, neh?

    i think it was something along the line of "OMG... our sat is disabled, gotta clean that junk up from outer space. conveniently, we just happen to have a system which hits stray satellites ready".

    whatever. the point was that the chinese test was arguably not against the letter of the treaties. but very effective at worrying the Pentagon.

    the kittens are already frantically clawing their way out of the bag.

    1. Andrew Tyler 1


      That was actually the US test you're referring to (the excuse about having to destroy a wayward satellite).

      I don't believe the Chinese needed any excuses. They just went ahead and tested theirs.

    2. Annihilator

      Merging stories

      Almost. China did indeed shoot one down, but they were honest about it - they blew it up to prove they could blow it up.

      The US on the other hand, used the "ooh it's broken and falling, it may spill rocket fuel on people" story and then blew it up.

      TBH, China's honesty was refreshing..

      1. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: Merging stories

        Only if they *had* shot it down, that wouldn't have been so bad, now most of the junk that's up there in LEO is from that single explosion!

      2. Jean-Luc

        my bad.

        I did conflate both stories. The US bad-sat kill excuse. And the fact that the Chinese tested a sat killer as well.

        For the record, I found the US whining at the time about the Chinese sat killing escalating the arms race very, very hypocritical. But it's naive to think that this kind of jousting won't be happening.

        However, defensive satellite measures, like the swarmers, could be considered beneficial as they reduce the temptation of first-striking a potential enemy's systems to blind him.

  16. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Global Operating Devices were Never Ever Toys for Boys, nor ever will be in CHAOSystems*.

    "Much though active space warfare - including attack on another nation's spacecraft - is strictly forbidden by international law and treaty, it would seem that the USA intends to be ready for it anyway. "

    And strictly forbidden by international law and treaty is only applicable to those who are retarded enough to not imagine that strictly forbidden by international law and treaty is for retards who imagine that strictly forbidden by international law and treaty will prevent smarter and stealthier intelligence progress by others who are smarter and stealthier with Remote Virtual Control of Cyber Command and IT Controllers for Brain Washing, aka Meme Placement.

    * For all retards who would claim there is anything remotely like a New World Order, whenever CHAOS rules Supreme and Sublime in Everything Everywhere. And Tilting at Clouds Hosting Advanced Operating Systems is very Don Quixote.

  17. william henderson 1


    are they going to shoehorn/manouvre all those minisats in amongst the spacejunk?

  18. Cucumber C Face
    Paris Hilton

    Where's the energy coming from?

    Presumably rocket propulsion is used to initiate and terminate these movements. So they're going to have a (how greatly?) limited number of shots at repositioning themselves unless they can be refuelled.

    Paris - because she also requires regular attachment to a fuel pump

  19. Dr Patrick J R Harkin

    Six F's?

    Someone spent a nice afternoon dreaming that up. Mind you, I can this of two more, although they also need an S after them.

  20. Anonymous Coward


    it's funny...I tried to start World War 3 by destroying the US spy sat network after reading this, but all my F6 does is select the next screen.

    I must be doing it wrong.

  21. Fred Mbogo

    Project Orion

    Perhaps they could withdraw from that silly no nukes in space treaty and restart project Orion. Use the excess nukes scheduled for decommissioning to send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.

    No weapons and nukes in space? Pfeh, as if a treaty will stop a superpower from doing what they want. At least with Project Orion, you have legit reason to use nukes in space.

    Brits should be particularly proud as your good boffin Freeman Dyson participated in it which is badass.

  22. Peter Mc Aulay
    Thumb Up

    Deploying weapons in space is illegal

    And obviously nobody is ever murdered because that's illegal too.

    Seriously, it cannot possibly hurt to be prepared.

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