Extremists could use “space terrorism” to mount deadly attacks using satellites similar to those mounted by Al Qaeda, according to Britain’s senior space official.
The 9/11 attacks that caused almost 3,000 fatalities could be replicated from outside the stratosphere if terrorists are able to hijack large satellites as they did planes, said Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth, head of the UK Space Directorate.
He also suggested that many of the public were unaware of the dangers posed by a new space era, in which new equipment is appearing in orbit on a daily basis.
There have previously been warnings that if a satellite was to collide with another this could create a ripple, bringing down hundreds if not thousands of orbiters.
In what is known as the Kessler Effect, the chain reaction would make it impossible to navigate any spacecraft, putting global technology back 70 years, with GPS, communications and other benefits provided by satellites rendered useless.
However, it is also feared that terrorists could force satellites from space to dive earthward, using them as missiles, similar to the passenger jets that were flown into the World Trade Centre 20 years ago.
There are 4,900 satellites now orbiting Earth and the price of getting equipment into space has dropped from $20,000 per kilogram to $2,000 per kg.
“We have witnessed what happened when the air domain became accessible to all,” said AVM Smyth. “Terrorists turned airliners into weapons. If such a trend holds true for space, when will we have to deal with our first example of space terrorism and are we prepared for such a dramatic strategic shock?”
He added that the majority of population “don't even realise their daily dependence on space, it seems to be 'out of sight out of mind'.”
In the last two years the number of satellites has risen from less than 2,000 to 4,900, and space is becoming more “overtly contested”, not just by states developing anti-satellite missiles, but also more worryingly via “jamming, dazzling or spoofing” activities, much of it by Russia and China.
“This at best compromises safety and at worst could lead to miscalculation in terms of response from those that perhaps feel threatened,” he said, at the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition.
But diplomats in the Foreign Office are working hard to get a “globally agreed set of acceptable norms of behaviour for space” via the UN General Assembly and progress had been “exceptionally positive”.
The long-awaited UK space strategy will likely be published later this month, the former fighter pilot said.
“We have a much more ambitious and new broad-ranging defence space programme,” he added.
He also suggested that within a decade there will be major expansion into space that would prove positive for mankind. “This will perhaps include hitherto science fiction endeavours, such as asteroid mining for highly precious metals, thereby providing a viable commercial edge to space, and space tourism will become commonplace.”
“We could very realistically have landed the first humans on Mars … For the first time in all of our existence, humankind could forge a new space commercial line of communication, which will undoubtedly contribute significantly to both national prosperity, and therefore national security”, he said.