Military planners foresee a future filled with anti-satellites and space mines. They say we also need orbiting laser and particle beam weapons that focus killer rays of energy to zap satellites, enemy warheads in flight, or even blast targets on Earth. Then there are the thunder rods, that can be fired from orbit. These long and slender kinetic-energy devices destroy by using their own mass and high velocity.
Space-based weapons are the topic of a new report authored by think-tank experts at RAND. The study does not argue for or against space weapons, says Bob Preston of RAND. The intent is to sort through the realities and myths surrounding space weapons.
“We wanted to provide an objective basis for grounding discussion in physical realities and historical context,” he says. He says opinion “is both highly polarized with people violently for and against the idea” of weapons in space.
There are several different types of space weapons. Directed-energy weapons, such as space lasers, use millions of watts of power and large optics to deliver a speed-of-light attack as a missile arcs over the Earth. Depending on the wavelength of the energy beamed out and atmospheric conditions, an energy beam can destroy a target on Earth’s surface.
Kinetic-energy weapons would be used against missile targets. This hardware can fly headlong into a target in space or an object that is still within the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.
Space-based kinetic energy weapons can hit targets on the ground, such as large ships, tall buildings, and fuel tanks. These weapons are sleek and meteoroid-like in speed.
Space-based conventional weapons are capable of maneuvering to hit terrestrial targets. They can carry and dispense radio-frequency or high-power-microwave munitions.
One advantage of space weapons is that they can take out targets that may be inaccessible to other weapons. While ships and aircraft can take days to weeks to reach a distant battleground, space-based weapons can respond within minutes or hours. Also, space-based weapons are less vulnerable to attack.
There are disadvantages as well. An opponent can overwhelm a weapon’s ability to fully thwart an attack. In addition, the positions of space-based weapons are predictable. A weapon destroyed in orbit would leave a cloud of debris, posing a hazard to other satellites. Lastly, large numbers of weapons would be required to make sure that one of them is in the right place at the right time.
The idea of purposely diverting an asteroid toward Earth as a weapon was examined by RAND. These would leave no radioactive debris. “For nations that already have nuclear arsenals, asteroid weapons might be of only academic interest,” their study notes. In order to use asteroids as natural bombs, the scale of the undertaking would be grander than that required to build the first A-bomb via the Manhattan Project in World War II, the RAND report points out. They say that asteroids as a space weapon of mass destruction “is likely to remain safely in the realm of science fiction.”
Preston says the opportunity to acquire space weapons is not limited to the United States. “There’s probably nobody that’s involved in space that doesn’t understand its security uses and isn’t motivated to some degree by its security uses,” Preston says. He feels that, right now, there?s no urgent need for the United States to defend itself in space from weapons in space, “but it?s not unreasonable to expect that you may have to before long.”
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