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Russia's orbital insanity is almost beyond redemption – but there's space for improvement
Every debris cloud has a silver lining
Opinion International politics proves Homo sapiens' kinship with purple-arsed baboons. There is yelling, there is exaggerated gesture, there is much ballistic propulsion of poo. The point to it all is surprisingly laudable: avoid actual conflict by play-acting it out.
Last week, though, the anger was burning hot and entirely genuine. When Russia blew one of its own spy sats out of orbit in an anti-satellite missile trial, it created a huge, growing, and very long-lived cloud of debris that put the ISS and its human cargo in immediate mortal danger. Heightened risk to the space station and to thousands of other satellites will continue for decades. "Outrage... irresponsible and destabilizing... reckless and dangerous..." would normally be astonishingly harsh words for NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to use about a closely cooperating partner; this time, they seem too mild and mannered.
And for what? The intense insanity of the Russian move isn't just that it was an act of grotesque vandalism with unknowable consequences for the entire globe, but that it demonstrated a capability that can never be used in earnest. An attack on its own satellite that dangerously pollutes the skies is one thing, to attack anyone else's satellite would invite massive retribution, in orbit and on the ground. It would not be a move that anyone could tolerate leaving unpunished, and whatever degradation of enemy capability was gained would be dwarfed by whatever is dealt back to you.
The best that Russia can hope for from this exercise in exothermic enormity is that the nations of the world will be more scared of a country capable of acting with such crass carelessness against its own interests. Look, we get it. We've seen you use military-grade neurotoxins to kill our civilians going about their daily business. We've seen the downed civilian aircraft, collateral damage of your illegal invasions. We've seen your murderous friends kept in power by any means, the fallout of misery on your own people as much as on anyone else's from the oligarchal infighting and careless brutality in the service of power. We get it. There's no need to turn the great cooperative venture of the ISS into a colander just to repeat yourself.
Let's put all that to one side. Let's pretend that knocking out other people's orbiting hardware is in some way a valid military option. How about demonstrating a degree of wit and cunning and a step above the "hit it with a hammer" approach?
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Removing hardware from orbit is something that desperately needs to be done, and that doing so in the right circumstances makes one a hero among the nations. It's not just anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) that make a mess – satellites tumble out of control and collide, or pressurised fuel tanks weaken and explode through thermal cycling. Satellite designers and operators have a duty to plan for polite deaths.
It can be a parking orbit out of the way, an active de-orbiting manoeuvre, or merely a final orbit so low that atmospheric drag is guaranteed to pull the beast in for a Viking funeral – perhaps assisted by braking sails. Many options.
They don't always work. Satellites go rogue and stop responding to commands, or fail in their space seppuku. Arrogant governments often don't care what happens to their cast-offs. As a result, it was calculated in May - before the Russia incident - that there were more than 3,000 dead satellites and rocket parts scudding along and the risk of a Kessler chain reaction rendering low Earth orbit unusable, perhaps for centuries, and massively hindering access to higher altitudes.
We'd lose space. It may not be if but when, and the awful nonsense of ASAT games is pushing us well towards the latter.
We want and need ways to de-orbit space junk. Flying robot retrieval missions with grapples, harpoons, nets, magnets, and all manner of other ideas is an area of active development, but it's a hard problem. A nation state committing to solving the problem would be seen as a saviour. And that nation state would come to possess the technological wherewithal to take anything out of orbit for whatever reason. Wasn't that the purpose of ASATs?
You can argue that de-orbit missions will be stately affairs of slow approach and slower attachment, compared to the whoosh-bang nasty surprise visit of a missile. Satellites could evolve ways to run away. That doesn't matter – the sort of military or surveillance hardware that ASATs are aimed at only does its job if it's got the luxury of going where it's needed and being a stable platform when it gets there. You can't do that while running away.
Other nations have played with ASATs – China, India, and the US, with varying degrees of responsibility. In truth, there is no good way to do such a bad thing, but Russia has chosen the worst. As leader of the Soviet Union, Russia created the legacy of Sputnik and Gagarin. If that history is irretrievably poisoned through carelessness, these names will be blackened forever. There are better ways to practice madness than through wanton destruction. Pray that wisdom visits before it is too late. ®