I read popular physics: Orbital Aggression

This is part of my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and publicly ponder what choices in life brought me to this point. This month’s “physics” article is not really about physics at all, but that’s the bed I made.

The article is titled “Orbital Aggression” (paywalled), and it’s about the possibility of space war. Space war refers not to war rained down from space, but rather war that targets satellites. Especially in the US, satellites play an important role in communication and imaging, such as transmitting credit card transactions or monitoring weather. They’re also used by the military, again especially the US military, which occupies every corner of the globe.

It turns out that attacking satellites is easy, defending them is hard. So space war is an “offense-dominated” domain. And the US, which relies more on satellites than anyone else is especially vulnerable. We don’t really know what the military is doing about it, but it’s likely that they defend through redundancy. The article also discusses diplomatic measures, and how difficult it is to design a treaty that delineates what kinds of actions are disallowed, and provides space for accidents and errors, including things that you may not be able to prove are accidents and errors. And then it talks about the community of hobbyists that watches satellites and provides open-access information about them.

There’s also a really cool infographic showing 2956 of the satellites in the sky, where they came from, what type of orbit they have, what function they serve (testing, imaging, communications, navigation, research), and how massive they are. I see that most satellites are either in low earth orbit (<2000 km above Earth), or geosynchronous orbit (35786 km above Earth). Pity it’s paywalled.

Although the article says satellites are important, it did leave me wondering how much buzz space war would create if it actually happened. I could see it creating a bit of buzz in mainstream media, and then quickly fizzling out. That’s not to deny it’s importance, it just seems like one of those important things that people would ignore because it doesn’t directly impact them. Or maybe it would directly impact the typical person, perhaps through credit card malfunctions? I don’t rightly know.

One thing that confuses me, is that the text of the article says there are approximately 3200 functioning satellites, but the infographic only shows 2956. Are the rest of the satellites… known to exist, but nothing is known about them? How is that possible? Mysteries abound, in popular science.

It’s alright, I’m sure there’s lots of stuff I don’t understand here, that I don’t even know I don’t know. It’s more of a policy article than a physics article, and I don’t have much expertise or commentary.

This is the second-to-last month of my Scientific American subscription. So I’ll have one more in this series, followed by a wrap-up post. And then? I could take requests maybe?


  1. brucegee1962 says

    If the satellites went out, GPS would be gone for everyone, right? So since nobody knows how to use maps anymore, there would be thousands of cars cruising around, with nobody able to figure out how to get home or anywhere else.

    As for whether the media would report it, I think a lot of our media would be down. Sure, lots of it is fiberoptic, but satellites still handle a lot too.

  2. says

    The US is always preparing for wars of aggression, under cover of defending itself from aggression. We still don’t know what is going on with the secret spacecraft the DoD(?) is sending up, but I would not put it past the US to be putting nuclear weapons in space, in violation of treaties and basic common sense.

  3. says

    There is that scenario – I forget what it’s called – in which one satellite hits another and both are reduced to expanding fields of high-velocity fragments, which hit other satellites and there’s a chain reaction resulting in a planet surrounded by a cloud of high-velocity fragments and no satellites until it’s all cleaned up.

  4. says

    The article didn’t mention Kessler syndrome, although it did speculate that the military would also use the threat of counterattack as a deterrent.

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