Our New Frontier: Threats from Above

The satellite era only makes us more vulnerable.

By Emilie Oblivión.

Over 3,400 man-made satellites currently circumnavigate the globe. Sharing the space with numerous commercial satellites are those from nearly 60 countries with their own space programs. The endless march of progress results in technology that has opened space to new actors, but for all the new commercial possibilities space presents (see “Our New Frontier: Possibilities for Growth”), it also exposes defense vulnerabilities. North Korea’s recent satellite test has renewed attention to the threat posed by—and to—orbiting technology.

After aggression from both sides of the Iron Curtain in the first decades of the Cold War, the arena of space has thus far been peaceful. The 1967 Out of Space Peace Treaty banned the use of weapons of mass destruction in space. The same treaty sought to define space as an independent territory that could not come under the ownership of a state and would be used only to further the good of humanity: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”—not that the treaty stopped the USA from planting a total of six flags on the moon and other nations from crashing theirs onto its surface.

Despite the treaty, the weaponization of space has never been far off. In the 1950s, elements of the U.S. military were in favor of bombarding the moon with nukes; when the dust settled, the craters would be seen from Earth, demonstrating the devastating nature of these weapons. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons at high altitude and in space before the treaty was signed.
Since then, all major state actors have experimented with weapons designed to take out satellites, including missiles, lasers, and maneuverable satellites that could collide with other orbiting targets. In 2007 China tested a …

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