It might sound like paranoia, but some scientists are growing concerned that mishaps in the space above our planet could cause a war here on Earth. What happens if a country’s military satellite is destroyed by a piece of space junk, but the blame is placed on a rival nation?
The space around Earth is littered with orbital debris, and satellites have suffered because of it. In 2013, the Russian laser-ranging satellite BLITS was hit by debris from a Chinese weather satellite. In 2009, a U.S. communications satellite was hit by a dead Russian military satellite. In 1996, a French satellite was struck by debris from a French rocket. According to NASA, “With so much orbital debris, there have been surprisingly few disastrous collisions.” What if one of these accidents occurs at a time when tensions are raised on Earth? Such an event interpreted as a military action could have a disastrous outcome.
It’s also important to point out that the debris that took out BLITS was leftover from China’s 2007 experiment with its anti-satellite program. China destroyed its own satellite then, but the program is designed to shoot down other countries’ satellites with missiles. If there are already measures in place for destroying satellites, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for a country to point the finger at an enemy rather than assuming that the culprit was an agenda-less piece of space junk.
Vitaly Adushkin, a Russian professor and author of "Catastrophic Events Caused by Cosmic Objects," recently wrote that orbital debris “may provoke political or even armed conflict between space-faring nations. The owner of the impacted and destroyed satellite can hardly quickly determine the real cause of the accident.” He describes in his report in the journal Acta Astronautica, that orbital debris has a “special political danger.”
But could this special political danger cause a war? Certain factors would have to line up in a catastrophic domino effect, but it's certainly an outcome that should be considered. This gives space agencies and those charged with creating and upholding international space law a lot to chew on. Think of the other side of the coin: Could a country take out a rival’s satellite and blame space junk?
If that sounds crazy, consider the ever-increasing amount of space debris. And as the amount of space debris increases, so do the chances for events like these to unfold. To know the numbers, NASA’s orbital debris count as of 2013 was 500,000 objects with 20,000 of those being larger than a softball. However,according to the space agency, it doesn't take a large object to cause significant damage because debris travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph. What’s more problematic is the debris that NASA and other space programs don't have their eyes on. NASA chief scientist for orbital debris, Nicholas Johnson, once said, “The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris.” This non-trackable debris could be either man-made or natural. Not only do we have man-made space trash to worry about, but unobserved meteors as well.
The notion of war on Earth caused by what's happening in space probably shouldn't keep you up at night, but it's important to remember that with every advance, new challenges are created. Hopefully, these challenges will be opportunities for the world to unite rather than the alternative.