What are space weapons?

Satellite in space/ Photo: Profimedia

The news was terrifying: According to Republican US Congressman Michael Turner, Russia is working on a new space weapon. But actually what kind of weapons are we talking about and what are their uses?

What is a space weapon?

Space weapons are weapons systems that are either stationed on Earth and directed against targets in space, or are weapons stationed on space stations or missiles stationed in space and can from there attack targets on Earth or targets in space itself .
The most famous are the so-called "killer satellites" – satellites that are purposefully placed in orbit to destroy other spacecraft.

What can it be used for?

Various possible uses are conceivable. However, many of them are currently not yet technically mature. The current discussion about possible Russian space weapons plans relates specifically to anti-satellite weapons. The abbreviation "ASAT"-weapons is used for them, an acronym from the English name "anti satellite activity". These weapons, often in the form of a satellite themselves, are intended to destroy other satellites in space: for example, spy satellites or satellites supporting military operations on Earth (which, however, are not designated as "space weapons").

Because modern warfare, such as in Ukraine, can no longer be imagined without satellite support. Satellites provide the military with photos in a few seconds, and communication within the army or navigation of complex weapon systems would hardly be possible without them. Anyone attacking their enemy's satellites can deal a lot of damage.

Is the discussion about this new?

No! Back in the late 1950s, when the era of space travel was just beginning, Americans experimented with weapons that were fired at high altitude from B-47 bombers to intercept satellites. These weapons were quite imprecise.

The same thing happened in the Soviet Union: there, too, it was recognized early on that foreign satellites could potentially pose a threat to its own security. But even in the Soviet Union, tests with defense systems in the 1960s did not go beyond mere experiments.

In the 1980s, the Cold War reached its zenith – the arms race between the superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union. In both camps, research on space weapons was renewed and prototypes were developed, which ultimately proved too expensive.

Then, as now, the risks of space weapons are being discussed. Debris from destroyed satellites can be dangerous if it continues to fly through Earth's orbit. In November 2021, the International Space Station was temporarily in danger as debris from an old Soviet satellite, which Russia deliberately shot down, appeared in its path.

What does international law say about space weapons?

Another reason why near-Earth space is not yet full of space weapons is the so-called "Space Pact". After a series of UN resolutions, the treaty was passed in 1967 and was ratified by the United States and the Soviet Union, among others. Apparently, it quickly became clear to all countries involved that the military use of space travel carried at least as many risks as benefits.

The Outer Space Treaty, among other things, prohibits the stationing of nuclear weapons in space. It is also not allowed to build military bases on celestial bodies. All this severely limits the use of space weapons, as many say – rightly so.

Source: Deutsche Welle/ Author: Friedel Taube

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