On Tuesday, SpaceX will launch a much more powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy. This time the customer is the US Space Force and the payloads are heavily classified.
The launch comes on the heels of heightened tensions between the United States and Russia amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s threat to target commercial satellites, benefiting Ukraine and its allies during the war.
The launch is another sign of the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on the commercial space sector, which is becoming more capable at the same time space is becoming an increasingly contested area. The partnership was also codified in the Defense Strategy released by the Department of Defense earlier this week. ”
But as these technologies—cheap, reusable rockets flying more frequently, small satellites launched in dozens—are playing a broader role in national defense and intelligence agencies, national security officials , aware that they may be threatened. But what happens after that is not clear.
Commercial Satellite Tests Rules of War in Russia-Ukraine Conflict
“Starlink supports Ukraine, so whoever my counterpart in Russia is, I’m sure he’s not very happy with Starlink,” said Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of the U.S. Space Force. said at the space conference on Monday. “Also in the news that commercial images like Maxar’s products are happening all over the world, I don’t think they are very happy about it either. And because it goes against Russia’s national interests, We know they will likely try to shut down commercial services.”
A few days later, Russian officials proved he was a prophetic and threatening commercial satellite during a meeting at the United Nations.
In a speech, Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the non-proliferation and weapons department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the proliferation of civilian-operated satellites “is a very dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of space technology, and is a very dangerous trend in Ukraine. latest trends”
He warned that “quasi-civilian infrastructure could become a legitimate target for retaliation.”
Asked about the threat, White House Press Secretary Carine Jean-Pierre on Thursday echoed earlier comments from her Pentagon counterpart, stating: Our chosen time and method. And it still stands. We will investigate, deter, and pursue all means to hold Russia accountable for such attacks. Obviously, I’m not going to put them here… in public. But we made ourselves very clear. ”
The threat has not slowed the use of the Pentagon’s rapidly evolving commercial space technology.
“The majority of innovation in space comes from the commercial sector, not government, which is a big shift from the last few decades,” said Brian Weeden, program planning director at the Secure World Foundation think tank. says. “The big challenge is how the U.S. military will utilize it. It’s a very different way of doing business.”
Ukraine and its Western allies have turned to a number of commercial U.S. companies, such as Planet and Maxar Technologies, which provide real-time satellite imagery of the battlefield, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which operates the Starlink satellite constellation that provides them. have depended on. Keeping Ukraine online despite Russian attacks on ground communications systems.
The Pentagon isn’t just looking for big rockets to launch big, sophisticated satellites. There is tremendous interest in small rockets designed for frequent and short take-offs so that they can react quickly to ground conditions.
The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have a keen interest in Virgin Orbit, a small launch company founded by Richard Branson. Instead of launching rockets from a vertical launch pad on the ground, the company tucks boosters under the wing of his 747 plane to carry it overhead. After that, drop the rocket, start the engine and fly into space. This will allow the company to take off from runways that can accommodate planes the size of his 747.
Russia is adept at sabotaging satellites and has repeatedly attempted to sabotage the Starlink system, which remains online, US officials said. Last year, Russia launched a missile that destroyed a dead satellite in a test demonstrating its ability to target sensitive spacecraft.
That’s why the Pentagon relies on constellations of smaller and smaller satellites. Knock out one or two and you have dozens more to pick up the slack.
The adoption of that technology is also documented in the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy Document.
Swarms of satellites simply make them more difficult to target, as Derek Tournear, director of the Space Force’s Office of Space Development, said this week, according to SpaceNews. “How many Starlink satellites have the Russians shot down?” The answer was “zero”.