back to article Russia tested satellite-to-satellite shooter, say UK and USA

The USA and UK have alleged that Russia last week tested an in-orbit satellite-killer weapon. US Space Force chief of operations General John Raymond put his name to a statement that says on July 15, Russia “injected a new object into orbit from Cosmos 2543,” a satellite that Moscow insists is a maintenance vehicle but which …

  1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge
    Mushroom

    What are they building up there?

    That's no moon...

    1. NeilPost Bronze badge

      Re: What are they building up there?

      Just watched You Only Live Twice on Sat evening. Topical!

  2. Chris G Silver badge

    Interesting, the object had around the speed of an airgun slug so to do any damage would need tohave a bit more mass.

    That leads to reaction and how to stabilise a satellite killing launch platform.

    I wonder if you could use spin to launch a slug?

    1. Ben Tasker Silver badge
      Joke

      Perhaps it was a carefully aimed USB device loaded with BadUSB - far less suspicious if you're satellite is there but not currently responding than if it's missing

    2. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Why does it have to be fast-moving? If this was really a weapon test, I expect it was a missile without a warhead.

      Popping out a missile that moves under its own power makes far more sense than shooting a projectile and dealing with the Newtonian implications.

      Orbits are almost always enitrely predictable, plus a missile could alter its trajectory - harder for a projectile.

      Once the killer satellite is in a similar orbit to the target, the delta-v needed for a missile to reach the target is relatively small.

      Again, if a weapons test, this may have been an on-orbit deployment and guidance test, seeing the the missile can launch and reach its intended target.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Fixing satellites is now a business, the rooskis have a recent history of poor build QC, Occam applies.

        Ergo, It is a repair satellite and the object leaving at speed was previously a working part of the manoeuvring system, something like the Northrop Grumman MEV-1 that was used earlier this year on Intelsat-901.

        1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

          Yeah I know, and fixing a satellite is a valid non-threat reason for one satellite to approach another.

          Indeed, whatever was moving at 700kph could be a component from the target satellite that was removed and fired into a decaying orbit, for burn-up disposal.

          But Occam's Razor works both ways, and satellite repair tech can equally be used as an offensive weapon. Ergo it is equally probable an offensive capability was being tested on a defunct Ruskie bird.

          Blowing up a satellite leaves a lot of debris that could damage other orbital Russian assets. Pulling something off a target disables it without the debris field.

          1. Wellyboot Silver badge

            I'd take it as given that military applications are being developed, Northrop Grumman have quite a history in the field, Russia will be doing the same.

      2. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Yes, a lightweight rocket projectile aimed via launch rail would have the least dynamic effect on the launch vehicle. A simple payload, something like a shotgun cartridge that can be fired mid flight (well away from launch vehicle) would be enough to wreck satellites.

        Onboard terminal course correction would probably only be needed for long distance shots, 100Km+, the target isn't trying to avoid being hit and why waste fuel getting really close to something that is going to become shrapnel soon. As an accurate intercept location can be easily calculated from the relative velocities at launch.

        The whole rocket can be a very compact blunt tube (no aerodynamic issues) allowing the launch vehicle to carry a useful number, compared to earth bound rocket launchers this is almost too easy.

      3. vtcodger Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Sitting Ducks

        Basically, satellites are by their very nature, sitting ducks. For the most part, they are about as maneuverable as the island of Manhattan. If you want for some reason to shoot one up, you'll know where to find it. What I'm kind of unclear on is what advantage there might be from launching an attack on a satellite from space rather than from the ground. In either case, you have to lift a payload to satellite altitude. I'd think that a ground launch would be simpler and more flexible.

        FWIW, I once knew a bit about intercepting ICBMs -- which is, I think, far more difficult. But that was long ago and maybe things have changed in some way.

        There are folks out there who have spent decades thinking the satellite intercept problem through. They surely know more than I do. And more than your average politician or newspaper reporter. It'd be nice to hear from one or more of them on this subject.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Sitting Ducks

          "What I'm kind of unclear on is what advantage there might be from launching an attack on a satellite from space rather than from the ground. In either case, you have to lift a payload to satellite altitude. I'd think that a ground launch would be simpler and more flexible."

          Surely once you've put the weapon(s) in orbit, they can be deployed faster and/or less noticeably than a ground-based attack can?

          1. vtcodger Silver badge

            Re: Sitting Ducks

            Surely once you've put the weapon(s) in orbit, they can be deployed faster and/or less noticeably than a ground-based attack can?

            You'd think so. But mostly not. Your killer satellite won't be much if any more maneuverable than your target, so I think that just as with a ground launch interception system, you'll mostly get two short interception windows a day.

            One possibility would be to build one killer unit for each target and put it into an identical orbit trailing or leading its target by a few hundred meters. Or a few meters. If you're going to do that, you don't even need to shoot. You can have the killer snuggle up to tis target, clamp onto anything that sticks out, deploy an "arm" and start tearing pieces off. Or spray painting the sensors. Doable? Almost for sure. But extraordinarily expense I should think.

            1. doublelayer Silver badge

              Re: Sitting Ducks

              Exactly. If you can have enough weapons to be able to take out satellites with a 12-24 hour lead time, that's pretty good. Preparing a ground-based attack might be able to go faster if you rush things, but it's not markedly so. Also, if you attack a satellite from something near it, you can do so in such a way that relatively little damage is caused to other things. If you have to fire your offensive weapon from the surface, you don't have as many options--either you launch what is effectively what you could launch already, or you go for a blast it to pieces approach. If you do blast it to pieces, there's always the chance you might damage something you didn't intend to damage, either causing problems for you or angering someone who was formerly neutral. Even if you still think surface-based attacks are useful, it doesn't hurt to have both options available. If you can stand to wait a few hours, use your orbiting disassemblers. If you can't, bring out the big laser.

        2. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Sitting Ducks

          Cosmos 2543 sidled up to another Russian satellite before releasing the object that moved at around 700 km/h.

          Must be 700km/h relative velocity, because the sats in LEO are moving around their orbital path at over 17500 mph.

          700kmh per hour at that distance from the earth is virtual straight down to re-entry,

      4. NetBlackOps Bronze badge

        Another option is nothing more than the terrestial equivalent of a surveillance drone, possibly with electronic intercept or countermeasure gear.

    3. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Interesting, the object had around the speed of an airgun slug so to do any damage would need tohave a bit more mass.

      Wouldn't take much to push a satellite out of orbit or cover sensors like cameras with maybe paint. Perhaps this wasn't a weapon system but a test of "how close can we get" type of intercept test? You don't need to blow up a satellite to create massive issues with it.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: That leads to reaction and how to stabilise a satellite killing launch platform.

      airgun - Why bother? Conventional bullets fire fine in space. "Gun powder" contains both the reactant & the oxidizer. Airguns require you store gas under high pressure.

      reaction - Recoiless rifles have been around for ages. Just a matter of masses & springs.

      spin - See above for simpler solutions.

    5. swm Silver badge

      "Interesting, the object had around the speed of an airgun slug so to do any damage would need to have a bit more mass."

      Actually, you only have to aim at something in a different orbit and you might have many miles per second velocity difference when it hit the target. Just launching ball bearings straight up to intersect a satellite would result in lots of damage.

  3. potato_chips
    Alien

    Thanks for stepping up Russia

    At least someone will have the kit to defend us when the aliens come back.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Thanks for stepping up Russia

      A crappy little 700k/hr anti-satellite missile isn't going to be up to that job. We need space based nukes to fight the aliens with.

      1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: Thanks for stepping up Russia

        If science fiction has taught us anything, its that aliens will either A) have perfected interstellar travel and various high-damage energy weapons, but know nothing about basic microbiology, or B) have the same great technology, but skimped on buying AV software and firewalls.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Thanks for stepping up Russia

          Ans their IT systems are Mac compatible.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just launch a few tonnes of sand into retrogrde orbit packed around some C4 and blow it up a few hundred miles up. EVERYTHING will be destroyed within a few weeks by 15 km/s grains of sand shredding through it. The ultimate deterrent to any nation threatening unlawful violence against it, is destroying tens of trillions of dollars worth of western value.

    1. Kane Silver badge

      That's a...disturbingly specific idea.

      You've been thinking a lot about that, haven't you?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Enough to have done some back of envelope calculations assuming the sand was uniformly dispersed in a volume 50km thick and the satellites were sweeping through it with a 1 m^2 cross sectional area, which gave one impact per week or so (very dependent on grain size.. I'm not sure which would be most effective but the kinetic energy of even microgram objects hitting at 15 km/sec is pretty huge). Not enough to have done monte carlo simulations using actual orbital elements and estimated cross sections of real satellites, or investigated actual explosions would do to the grains.. probably wouldn't end up in a uniform layer unless you tried to shape it to give a non-isotropic profile.

        1. TheFurryCircle

          Hi - I'm the CEO (Chief Evil Overlord) of World Domination Corp. I may have a job for you here if interested?

        2. werdsmith Silver badge

          The hard part is getting your sand shot into an accurate enough retrograde orbit to meet your target.

          This has been looked at very thoroughly for the purposes of de-orbiting redundant spacecraft.

    2. UCAP

      The problem is that the energy you need to get the sand into retrograde orbit is *huge* since you have to cancel out the effects of the Earth's rotation.

      Another problem is that orbital sand is a non-discriminatory weapon; it may take down your enemy's assets, but it will also take down your own and that of any neutrals as well. The latter are likely to become seriously p***ed off about the whole thing and might join forces against you.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        It is unusual, but not unheard of, to launch things into retrograde orbit.

        From the sometimes-dubious font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_satellites_in_retrograde_orbit

        1. RM Myers Silver badge
          Headmaster

          ...font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia

          But not the fount of all fonts, shirley?

    3. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Destroying kit worth billions in Dollar, Rouble & Yuan value will annoy ALL the big players at the same time and give them a common enemy that fired first.

      I doubt they'd leave two bricks standing.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Definitely a nuclear option. Think very-well-funded nutjob, or a rogue nation that doesn't give a shit about the rest of the world's satellites. But then even rogue nations tend to have an ally in China and/or Russia, and obliterating your ally's assets is rarely a smart move.

        So I'd go with the nutjob. Global ransom.

        [Left pinky touching right corner of mouth]:Pay me 1 meellion dollars or I wipe out the world's satellites.

    4. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Space is big, take 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

      This may not be as effective as you think. There are also already 600,000 pieces of space junk of sizes 1-10cm. You've added few thousand <2mm pieces. And at that size, they won't need much abrading before they're harmless. (And the cloud will self abrade in the early phases.)

      Or we can compare it with the hundreds of tonnes of rock hitting earth every day. We don't seem to have a good handle on this, but I just found one study suggesting a diurnal flux of 44 tonnes <100g particles. Much of that is on grazing, retrograde trajectories - as you can verify in any meteor shower.

      There's also technical challenge of trying to disperse the cloud so it's not compact but doesn't end up too thin. And there's no chance to practice - because once it's done, everyone knows.

    5. John Deeb

      A few tonnes doesn't sound much compared to the diameter of the earth. You'll lose most of it exploding in the wrong direction (launched in space or crashing) Apart from that, there's still some drag in LEO orbit which will slow down grains of sand over time and not endlessly rotate at 15 km/s. That said, it would still cause damage, just not trillions.

  5. John Jennings Bronze badge

    Almaz

    Some time ago, late 1960;s, early 70's the USSR fitted a modified canon to one of its mini space stations. The project was labled a soyuz, but it is also known as an Almaz.

    The russian 20MM canon has a muzzle velocity of 820Ms-1 at ground level - I would assume it would be a slightly lighter charge would do it to get 700Ms-1

    It used a rear gun from a bear strategic bomber - 30mm I think - I believe it was successfully test fired then - though not clear if it hit anything....

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rikhter_R-23

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Almaz

      The Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 supposedly flown into space fires 23X115 shells at 720m/sec, or about 2400 km/h, somewhat faster than the reported 700km/h. The 23 is in mm.

      1. Julz Silver badge

        Re: Almaz

        It was actually fired successfully before the ALMAZ OPS-2Salyut-3 was de-orbited. Not a great weapon though as it was fixed statically to the forward part of the station so you had to point the whole station at any target you might be interested in. It also had a bitch of a recoil which was why it was only tested when the station was unmanned and about to be destroyed as they feared that it might shake the whole thing to bits. It was fired three times but in a 'responsible' manner. They fired the shells retrograde to the orbital direction of the station so that they wouldn't stay in orbit too long :)

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Almaz

          "It also had a bitch of a recoil"

          Yes and no. As a short recoil weapon, the perceived force transmitted to the platform wasn't as great as you might think. Try firing an automatic shotgun and then a pump shotgun of a similar mass and the same loads. The perceived recoil difference between the two is quite noticeable.

          Yes, I know Newton. The spring(s) spread the force out over time. A punch hurts more than a shove, despite both supplying the same total force over the same area.

  6. Sanguma Bronze badge

    Outer Space Treaty

    doesn't forbid weapons in outer space, let alone anti-satellites in earth orbit. On the other hand - err, paw - the various arms control treaties including the multilateral one covering Europe from Russia to the UK, from Spain to Svalbard to Turkey, have a provision permitting the use of national technical means of verification, which amongst other sins, covers the protection of remote-sensing satellites against interference. If the United States leadership had half the gumption of your average twelve-year-old schoolboy, they would've turned that provision into a broader multilateral anti-satellite treaty at the time when they were undeniably the winners of the Cold War and were still not wasting their substance on chasing the will-o-the-wisp in Central Asia and the Middle East. And could effectively dictate terms as they did in the WTO ... but no, they were too intent on examining the contents of their innermost rectums ... and applying some self-satisfying rectal therapy ... Better them than me!!!

    If they had had half the gumption of a twelve-year-old boy ...

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Outer Space Treaty

      Interesting. I thought the Outer Space Treaty specifically did prohibit weapons based in space. Which would give an obvious loophole for ground or air-launched anti-satellite missiles.

      And nope, you're correct. The treaty forbids the basing of nuclear (or other weapons of mass destruction) in space. Astronaut's personal laser cannon are exempt - as are armed satellites - and all manner of other things. Every day's a school day...

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Point of order

      The treaty states:

      "If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment."

      Which we take to mean the treaty frowns upon the use of potentially destructive force without consultation, which may have happened here. We've expanded that part of the article with our thinking.

      PS: Please email corrections@theregister.com if you spot anything you think is wrong in an article so we can take a look immediately.

      C.

      1. Chris Fox

        Starlink?

        Do we know whether such consultations took place for Starlink (and Kuiper, OneWeb, Hongyang etc.)? These massive constellations of satellites, with their potentially costly adverse impact, certainly appear to lie within the scope of this treaty.

        (Then again, some would argue that the national legal framework that provides legal cover for the FCC's seemingly gung ho approach to satellite approval, namely the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, is itself in breach of the Outer Space Treaty...)

  7. Dave 126 Silver badge

    Weapons in Space

    There are some weapons in Space, but they form a part of the Soyuz survival kit, mainly for scaring off bears. That's bears in Siberia should you land there, not bears in space.

    1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

      Re: Weapons in Space

      The TP82 triple barreled Russian survival gun is a thing of beauty, and bonkersness at the same time.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: Weapons in Space

      Dave 126,

      You say there are no bears in space. But we've only got your word for it...

      SuperTed, for example, was space-capable. And I bet NASA are as vulnerable to being bribed with marmalade sandwiches as the rest of us.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Weapons in Space

        Some high altitude balloon missions carry bears.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Weapons in Space

          I think you mean "Some high attitude baloney missions start with beers", but I can see where your confusion comes from.

    3. jake Silver badge

      Re: Weapons in Space

      We had a bear on the property this morning. I yelled at it. It ran away. No guns required.

      (If needs be, we usually shoot the wild ones with a paintball gun instead of giving them lead poisoning. We didn't move here because we hate the wildlife ... the paintball gun teaches them that humans are bad ju-ju, and they learn to ignore/avoid human habitation entirely. Win-win.)

      1. martinusher Silver badge

        Re: Weapons in Space

        If you really want to be mean put the paintballs in the freezer for a bit.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Weapons in Space

          I have no intention of being mean. We didn't move up here because we hate the wildlife. And frankly, I doubt freezing would make all that much difference. Most fluids aren't compressible, so freezing in this case probably wouldn't make them hit much harder.

          Besides, my deep-freeze isn't set that low ... These things aren't water-based toys, they are oil and alcohol based professional tools and are fully functional down to -40F (-40C). I suspect that they freeze at a much lower temperature than that. The colo(u)r is usually visible on the fur for six months or more... it weathers off of trees in 4 or 5 years.

          Part of the point is to mark the critters to see who isn't getting the message. We rotate colo(u)rs monthly. Animals that don't cooperate are relocated. Or eaten. (Rattlers caught in the barns and other public areas get a drop of nail polish behind the head and are released over half a mile away, hopefully to feast on ground squirrels ... they get one dot per molt, the second time they become tacos.)

  8. Death_Ninja

    Weapons in space

    The US's anti-satellite test mission is hardly secret - 13 September 1985.

    Maj. Wilbert D. "Doug" Pearson is the only fighter pilot to date to have chalked up a kill in space so far.

    I heard someone say the other day though that both the Russians and the Chinese are stepping up these space warfare projects because.... Trump created Space Force... announcing to the world that the USA is officially taking war into space.

    And PS the 1967 Outer Space Treaty doesn't prohibit conventional weapons in space, only "weapons of mass destruction" and you can't turn the moon or any other celestial body into a battle station (are you listening Darth?)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Weapons in space

      you can't turn the moon or any other celestial body into a battle station

      Oh honestly!...these days it's just health & safety gone mad!!

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Weapons in space

        To be fair, the Death Star really needed a health and safety officer. There's all those tripping hazards (including the cleaning droids), massive risks of falls from height (no safety rails) and the rubbish disposal system alone is a risk-assessment nightmare.

        Also HR need to buck their ideas up, as I think Lord Vader should at least be investigated for workplace bullying.

        Although at least their policies on giving people with disabilities senior management roles can't be criticised...

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Point of order

      "Outer Space Treaty doesn't prohibit conventional weapons in space"

      It rather frowns upon destructive force without consultation, stating:

      "If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment."

      We've added this to the piece to expand upon our thinking.

      PS: If you think we've got something wrong, email corrections@theregister.com and let us know, please.

      C.

      1. Death_Ninja

        Re: Point of order

        Yes, correct this:

        "It's also worth noting it is widely believed that several nations posses missiles that could reach space to attack satellites"

        As I stated above, 1985 the USAF proved to the world that it has an anti-satellite missile... its not a secret.

  9. Timbo

    I can think for two instances that may give "pause for thought":

    1) A "multi-shot" capable satellite could be put into a "stealth" orbit and every now and then a satellite suddenly goes dead for no apparent reason. Such a "killer satellite" could easily be used as a blackmail weapon (I know, like something out of James Bond)

    2) In a similar way, what could have been fired could be more like a "harpoon" device, that pierces/attaches itself to a dead satellite and it's trajectory is changed such that it burns up in the atmosphere.

    https://www.space.com/space-junk-harpoon-removedebris-satellite-video.html

    I'm more thinking along the second idea, simply because we know that Russia does like "copying" other nations ideas - Tupolev Tu-144 (Concordski)? and Buran (Space Shuttle)? both spring to mind...

    1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      I'm more thinking along the second idea, simply because we know that Russia does like "copying" other nations ideas - Tupolev Tu-144 (Concordski)? and Buran (Space Shuttle)? both spring to mind...

      Also, they did a respectable clone of the B29 (a fact I only learned recently because it was mentioned in these forums - every day's a school day)

      1. Sanguma Bronze badge

        respectable clone of the B29

        which in the fullness of time, developed into the Tupolev 95 and a similar huge turboprop airliner. Mind you, Stalin had asked for rights to it and was turned down, before some B29s landed in Siberia after bombing Japan - the Soviet Union wasn't involved in the Pacific War until very, very late, and like all military aircraft engaged in a conflict landing in a neutral country, the B29s got impounded, and unsurprisingly, cloned.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: respectable clone of the B29

          Wasn’t it carrier launchedB25 Mitchell’s that we’re supposed to land in free China but encountered a headwind and the ones that weren’t ditched landed in Soviet territory.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: respectable clone of the B29

            The US gave the Soviets a metric crap-tonne of B-25s under the LendLease agreement. The US refused to give 'em B-29s ... see the design & development of the Tu-4 on Wiki for more.

        2. harmjschoonhoven
          Facepalm

          Re: respectable clone of the B29

          In 1947 the Soviet Union bought Rolls-Royce Derwent and Nene engines from the British and the Russians cloned them in their MiG-15 and La-15 jet fighters. Stalin had been skeptical that Britain would sell these engines. Stalin reportedly said "What kind of fool would be willing to sell his secrets!". But the British government agreed to the sale anyway.

          Stalin and the Bomb, page 235.

          1. JohnG Silver badge

            Re: respectable clone of the B29

            Our American allies were none too pleased about the RR jet engines sales to the USSR.

    2. Sanguma Bronze badge

      a "harpoon" device

      In which case it would be nice to have a bit of consultation, wouldn't it? A little less friction ... I know dreams are free ...

  10. TeeCee Gold badge

    ...a mere maintenance drone...

    Out of the "Hit it with a big hammer" school of maintenance?

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      If it works, it works.

      1. jake Silver badge

        If it doesn't, you need a bigger hammer.

  11. cmaurand

    If I want to kill a satellite

    I don't need to blow it up. I only need to drop it out of orbit. Attach a rocket motor, point it down and light it off, or better yet, just take a couple hundred mph off of it's orbital speed and let the atmosphere do the rest.

    We also have weapons up there including lasers. We have ship based lasers (already deployed) and we have them small enough to mount in aircraft. A hypersonic missile can't outrun a beam of light.

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