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Big U.S. worry over reports of Russian Capability in testing Nuclear weapon in orbit


By Girish Linganna

On February 14 this year, Washington D.C. was filled with discussions about a potential Russian space weapon. Mike Turner, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, called on the White House to release information about this weapon, describing it as a significant threat to security. Reports from U.S. media suggest it involves a Russian nuclear system related to space, which hasn't been deployed yet, but could pose a risk to U.S. and allied satellites.

Early reports were mixed, with some news sources mentioning a nuclear-powered spacecraft and others a nuclear-armed one. There are basically three possibilities being discussed: a ground-based “pop-up” nuclear weapon aimed at destroying satellites, launched only at the moment of need; a nuclear weapon permanently placed in orbit; or a nuclear-powered satellite, which isn't a bomb itself but uses nuclear energy to operate another type of device.

If Russia were to place a nuclear weapon in a complete orbit around the Earth, rather than a partial one that doesn't fully encircle the planet, it would be violating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Additionally, detonating nuclear weapons in space is prohibited under the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which Russia has agreed to. Regardless of legal issues, such a weapon would cause widespread and random destruction.

On Earth, a nuclear explosion causes significant harm through intense radiation, a massive blast wave, fires, and radioactive fallout. However, in the vacuum of space, the primary threat is radiation. An explosion in orbit could generate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that might damage or disrupt the electronics in many satellites across a large portion of the sky.

In 1962, when the U.S. conducted a high-altitude nuclear test known as Starfish Prime, it didn't only impact the nearby satellites. The Earth's magnetic field also spread the radiation to satellites on the opposite side of the planet. This resulted in damage or destruction to about one- third of all satellites in low Earth orbit at the time.

If Russia were to carry out a similar high-altitude nuclear test today, it could impact the vast network of about 8,300 active satellites in low Earth orbit, affecting not only American satellites but also those belonging to Russia, China, and other nations. Additionally, such a detonation could pose risks to the Space Station, which currently hosts three Russian astronauts, as well as China's Tiangong space station, which also has a three-person crew.

American military and intelligence satellites, especially those involved in nuclear command and control, usually have reinforced electronics to withstand such electromagnetic pulses. However, commercial satellites typically do not have this protection. Therefore, an attack like this might be more suited for rogue nations like North Korea and Iran, which have limited space assets to safeguard and might believe they have nothing to lose in a crisis.

Matthew Bunn from Harvard University mentioned to The Economist that Russia might aim to send a nuclear bomb into orbit to reach geosynchronous orbit (GEO), which is about 36,000km above Earth. This is significantly higher than the lower Earth orbit (LEO), which is below 2,000km. This strategy could be to position the weapon strategically in a more distant and influential orbital band. Matthew Bunn notes that satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) revolve around the Earth once daily, appearing stationary in the sky. This makes them ideal for tasks like broadcasting and missile warning. Many crucial U.S. military and surveillance satellites are positioned in this orbit. He also highlights that current nuclear missiles are unable to reach this high altitude.

PBS News Hour reports another theory suggesting that Russia could be planning to launch a nuclear-powered satellite equipped with electronic warfare capabilities. An electronic attack aims to disrupt or manipulate the signals sent to or from a satellite, typically causing temporary and reversible interference. Both the United States and Russia, along with other nations, possess ground-based systems capable of conducting electronic warfare against satellites. Conducting electronic attacks from space is more challenging, but it could lead to more targeted and sustained attacks, particularly if the weapon can be positioned near the intended target.

According to a report by the Secure Foundation, an NGO, Russia appears to be developing advanced space-based electronic warfare systems to complement its existing ground-based capabilities. This report, focusing on global anti-satellite abilities, was published last year. A 2019 article in the Space Review discussed Ekipazh, a nuclear-powered satellite built for electronic warfare. Dmitry Stefanovich from the Russian Academy of Sciences also mentioned Zeus, another nuclear-powered project aimed for 2030, which might have jamming capabilities.

Using nuclear reactors to power satellites is not new; the United States first did it in 1965, and the Soviet Union launched over 40 similar satellites. The main benefit of nuclear power is its ability to generate a lot of energy, which enabled Soviet satellites to operate more powerful radars. Today, nuclear power could let Russian satellites equip more potent jammers. According to The Space Review, Russian documents indicate that having nuclear reactors on satellites enables the use of jammers that can operate across a broad spectrum of frequencies. If positioned in highly elliptical or geosynchronous orbits, which keep a satellite over the same area of Earth for extended times, it could continuously disrupt electronic systems over large regions.

James Acton, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, explained to The Economist one reason Russia might find this capability appealing. The expert notes that recently, the U.S. military has shown a growing interest in large satellite networks like SpaceX's Starlink, which Ukraine and its military have extensively used. He explains that these large networks, made up of thousands of satellites, can't be taken down one by one physically. However, attacking them with widespread electronic interference is a viable alternative. (IPA Service)




The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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