'Satellite bodyguards' prepared for space protection

As EU chief Josep Borrell warns of a cosmic 'battlefield', The National speaks to experts on the growing need for orbiter defenders

Britain’s Ministry of Defence is looking at the future of contested space. Getty Images
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During the long years of the Cold War an unwritten agreement adhered to by Russia and the US was that their military satellites would remain off limits to attack.

In the three decades since that conflict ended the boundaries of war have eroded to the point that the European Union’s top diplomat warned on Tuesday that space could soon become a “battlefield” between great powers.

Speaking at the 15th European Space Conference in Brussels, Josep Borrell stated that Ukraine's defence against Russia demonstrated that satellites were a “game changer” for military manoeuvres.

That means that the orbiters themselves have now become targets, with an increasing need to protect them.

The term “bodyguard satellites” is taking hold in the military lexicon as defence companies actively look at how to defend high value spacecraft against hostile attack.

“Ten years ago, if you said do you think anybody would launch anti-satellite weapons that potentially can destroy the International Space Station all of us would have said no,” said Airbus’s military space expert Dr Markos Trichas. “In my personal opinion we need to be ready for a scenario where someone will actually try to take down someone else’s satellite.”

Cosmic conflict

That warning, it appears, is being listened to by the major space operators, as the possibility of cosmic conflict grows.

Russia has already launched an anti-satellite missile that destroyed one of its defunct orbiters, creating space debris that could have struck the space station in a scenario straight out of the 2013 film Gravity.

That 2022 event has led to a serious re-examination of the vulnerability of highly-sensitive military satellites and how to protect them.

The French military are openly developing the introduction of bodyguard satellites and released a study last year. Col Laurent Rigal, from French Space Command, stated that small bodyguards were needed “to watch over and protect space assets in a more hostile world”.

Starlink game-changer

The importance of space communications has been underlined by Ukraine’s huge reliance on Elon Musk’s fleet of 3,300 small Starlink satellites.

After Russia attempted to cyber sabotage Ukraine’s mainstream satellite system, Mr Musk gave the country free internet access, providing the military with up-to-date targeting information.

Starlink has been “vital” for Ukraine’s war success, allowing commanders to identify and rapidly strike those Russian targets, Gen Sir Richard Barrons told The National.

“Starlink means that they've been able to see more targets, put them on a database and prioritise them using AI and their expertise to rapidly allocate targets to weapons systems,” said the former chief of Joint Forces Command.

Using their low-Earth orbit coverage, Ukraine has been able to collate surveillance data from drones and geolocated smartphone photographs taken by people on the ground. All of that is uploaded via a special app on to a general intelligence database.

“That’s allowed a great deal more targets and reconnaissance information to be collected giving even junior commanders access to digital maps with icons on them so they can see what people know about the enemy in front of them, and what they know about their own forces in a way that would previously be a difficult conversation over the radio,” said Gen Barrons.

Space war thinking

Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is now looking at bodyguard satellites and the future of contested space.

“We’ve never had to worry about this before but we've seen more and more semi-aggressive moves,” a defence source told The National. “There’s lots of different concepts that have been looked at. The MoD are considering scenarios and what are acceptable behaviours, alongside a concept of operations that Space Command are looking at.”

But the MoD’s planning suffered a setback when its two Prometheus satellites went down with the recent failed launch of the Virgin Orbiter from Spaceport Cornwall earlier this month.

The Prometheus satellites had cameras on board in an experiment to take pictures of each other to gauge greater understanding of “situational awareness” in space.

Harpoons and nets

Dr Trichas, Airbus’s head of military space future programmes, said the British military was attempting to understand “the concept of operations in space to ensure the next generation of Skynet [military satellites] will remain there for the next 50 years.”

Airbus was also trying to “simulate the war environment” to understand the threats faced.

“We are doing lots of studies to understand how a potential incident in space can happen,” said Dr Trichas. “We are now talking about big bodyguard satellites, but also small deployable ones acting similar to chaff or a flare that a fighter jet will deploy to protect itself against the missile.”

But the military also had to increase its ability for early warning of threats and the ability “to attribute bad behaviours” to aggressors, he said.

He suggested that “big bodyguards” could have multiple uses, equipped with robotic arms to either shift a threatening satellite away, or to repair or supply one.

As part of their planning to remove space debris, Airbus has also demonstrated the ability to fire harpoons and large nets that could be used to defend against attacks.

Other forms would be lasers or magnetic de-orbiting devices, plus the requirement for a “very capable visual navigation system” to track threats or satellites in need of repair.

Dr Trichas added that a market would probably develop for the protection of expensive commercial satellites and that for bodyguard satellites there was “a significant increase of interest and funding over the next five years throughout the world”.

Space fleet

The US military is looking at maintaining a “space fleet of bodyguard spacecraft” whose role is “to manoeuvre into a guardian position in relation to a satellite that needs to be defended”, according to a paper by US Space and Defence.

The publication suggested that a bodyguard spacecraft would be a hardened vehicle with manoeuvring thrusters, giving it the “capacity to track, rendezvous, block or interpose itself between the satellite it is guarding and an attacking enemy spacecraft”.

It argued that the protectors would carry laser weapons as well as cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.

There have been discussions for an international agreement on “space safety zones” with a minimum safe distance of 50km between orbiters, with bodyguards operating within their allotted zone.

Any external entry would be called out as a violation with the right to conduct defensive measures under escalatory rules of engagement, starting with a public announcement and followed by the bodyguard nudging the interloper away.

That suggests an increasing likelihood of future space conflict. “What has changed in the recent years is the in-orbit threat and ASAT [anti-satellite] weapons as well as satellites, which can be used for de-orbiting or in a more sinister way,” said Dr Trichas.

Updated: January 25, 2023, 6:40 AM