Friday 16 February 2024

Nukes in Space?

ionospheric glow caused by Starfish Prime, a 1962 nuclear detonation in Space (image: Wikimedia)

It sounds a bit like the fictituous Goldeneye satellite from the 1995 Bond movie of that same name: a secret Russian weapon in space waiting to unleash doom.

The past few days the media have been abuzz about a purported Russian Space Weapon, either nuclear or not, either deployed or not. 

The initial source was US Congressman Michael R. Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who in an unprecedented public letter to House members said he had concerns about a "serious national security threath", urging President Biden to declassify the information. Subsequently, various US news sources quoted various of the proverbial "anonymous sources", with often conflicting information about the nature of the threath, but all indicating some kind of Russian space weapon.

What kind of weapon exactly, is unclear, although it seems to be an Anti-Satellite weapon of some sorts (see below). What caught the attention is that the 'anonymous sources' seemed to indicate something nuclear: either a nuclear weapon in space, or a nuclear powered satellite. Whether this is correct or not or just paranoia, is unclear at the moment.

A spokesman of the US White House National Security Council, ret. Admiral John Kirby, in reply briefed the press but with little pertinent extra information, apart from stating that he could confirm that "it is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia is developing":


He also made it clear that it is "not an active capability that has been deployed". In other words, there is currently not a weapon already lurking in space. And, he did clarify that it does not concern something targetting objects on the Earth surface.

It should also be noted that Kirby did not unambiguously mention (see below for what I exactly mean with that) that the 'capability' in question is nuclear, so this remains an unverifiable rumour from anonymous sources that might or might not be wrong. 

However, at 26:45 into the press conference, he does confirm that this Russian capacity is 'space-based': i.e. not a kinetic interceptor fired from earth, but a weapon to be deployed on-orbit; and he states, interestingly enough, that it "would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty"

The latter is an interesting phrasing and could perhaps be taken to indicate something nuclear after all (but: see what is following), as the 1967 OST, to which Russia is a signatory State, in article IV of the Treaty prohibits the deployment of Weapons of Mass Destruction (and very specifically nuclear weapons) in space. 

On the other hand, the remark of  "violating the OST" might simply refer to Article VII, that holds parties to the OST responsible for any damage they inflict in space on satellites from other Nations; or Article IX that says that signatory States should avoid "harmfull contamination" of Space (such as the creation of harmfull space debris from an ASAT test). 

So it all remains ambiguous here and the 'capability' in question might not have any nuclear aspects (e.g. being nuclear-powered, which is not a violation of the OST, or a nuclear weapon, which is) at all, depending on how you interpret the wording of Kirby's statements. There is a lot of interpretational wiggle room here.

That Russia is pursuing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities is nothing new. In November 2021, they conducted a much-criticized kinetic ASAT test targeting and destroying their Kosmos 1408 satellite (see my earlier posts here and more elaborate here) that created orbital debris in Low Earth Orbit and made astronauts and kosmonauts onboard the ISS briefly take shelter in their Soyuz capsule. 

The new element of the capability that is now the subject of all this discussion, appears to be that it is to be space-based. But even that is not really new. Over the past years, there has been much concern about Russian proximity operations in space (Russian satellites approaching other satellites, either Russian or from other countries, very closely: or ejecting sub-satellites/apparent projectiles).

In 1987, the former Soviet Union attempted to launch a prototype space-based laser weapon Polyus/Skif (that launch failed). Maybe they are up to something like that again. And for a long time, it is said that Russia is working on a nuclear-powered electronic warfare satellite, Ekipazh.

proximity operation of the Russian LUCH/OLYMP 2 SIGINT satellite close to a commercial geostationary satellite, as seen in this image I made from Leiden on 20 Sept 2023


In general, ASAT weapons are usually not weapons that are smart to use, as they do more harm than good.

Both kinetic ASAT weapons (that destroy satellites and in that process generate a lot of potentially harmful orbital debris) and nuclear detonations in space for use as ASAT, are indisciminate weapons that do not only harm your target, but potentially also harm other satellites, including your own satellites and those of Nations not part of the conflict in question. 

This is not the case for every ASAT weapon though. For example, a weapon that would attach to a target satellite and mechanically or electronically sabotage it, would be less harmfull to other satellites, although it does produce at least one piece of space debris, a dead satellite.

[clarification added 17:30 UTC on 16 Feb 2024:
The paragraphs below discuss a nuclear EMP device in space. There is however another option, that of a nuclear powered but in itself not nuclear ASAT weapon, where a nuclear reactor provides the power source for another type of weapon, e.g. a very powerful laser
(see the mention of Polyus above) or radio jammer (see the mention of Ekipazh above). This was one of the SDI concepts back in the 1980'ies. Nuclear powered satellites in itself are not new: both the Soviet Union and the USA have used them in the past, for example the Soviet RORSAT's that used nuclear power to power a powerful radar. Nuclear powered satellites do not violate the OST.]

As the nuclear spectre was raised by the 'anonymous sources' (which could have political agendas to do so), let's discuss this for a moment. Before the OST came into effect, Nuclear weapons tests have actually been conducted in space. And the results were very concerning.

The most well known of these is the US Starfish Prime test of 1962, part of Operation Fishbowl, where a 1.4 megaton nuclear bomb launched by a Thor rocket was detonated in Space at 400 km altitude. But there were also three smaller, earlier, low yield US tests in 1958 as part of Operation Argus.

Starfish Prime surpassed all expectations, leading to a halt in this kind of testing. Detonated at 400 km altitude over Johnston atoll, the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) created by the nuclear detonation actually inflicted damage at ground level on Hawaii, 1450 km away, where it knocked out some streetlights and parts of the telephony network.

(Note that in our modern world, where lots of electronics work based on microprocessors which are very vulnerable to EMP, we are much more vulnerable to such effects than the world was in 1962).

1962 Starfish Prime detonation flash as seen from Honolulu (image; Wikimedia)  

ionospheric glow caused by charged particles from the 1962 Starfish Prime detonation (image: Wikimedia)


In addition, charged particles generated by the detonation and carried along the Earth's magnetic field damaged several satellites

Of the 25 satellites in earth orbit on that date (this was the early space age), nine were damaged and eventually failed early as a result of this test. It concerned seven US satellites, one UK satellite, and one Russian satellite.

The damage is done by beta particles and electrons generated by the detonation, which spread through the earths magnetic field and ionosphere (which includes a considerable part of Low Earth Orbit), and damage electronic components in satellites. Some of these particles can linger on in the ionosphere for quite a long time (months).

In addition, the charged particles released into the ionosphere by the test generated Aurora-like effects on low latitudes, generating conditions that speed up the orbital decay of satellites.

In other words: using a nuclear bomb as an ASAT weapon in space, is not a very sensible approach. I would be surprised if Russia would use such a weapon, as its side-effects potentially could criple its own space assets too.

[note added 18 Feb 2024:] And it might actually do less harm to western military satellites (the ones Russia would want to target) than to civilian satellites, as several critical military space platforms have actually been hardened against EMP.

update 18 Feb 2024: CNN has published a story that is getting some traction, where it appears to be claimed that the 'weapon' in question is in fact an EMP device. 

But it is again based on anonymous sources: and anonymous sources so far have been contradictory in this, and there could be political agendas behind such 'anonymous' statements. Only a few years ago, a group of hawks in US politics were trying to push the alarmistic story that North Korea was developing (and even would already have tested, a claim which is certainly bogus) space-based EMP weapons (a dark interpretation of North Korea's KMS satellites). Their agenda was that they were advocating for a preemptive strike on North Korea.

(note: added a few sentences on the 1980'ies Soviet space-based laser weapon Polyus/Skif and the Ekipazh concept a few hours after the initial version of this post appeared).

No comments: