Any conflict in space will be much slower and more deliberate than a Star Wars scene

Saturday, November 14th, 2020

When considering how to control space , Rebecca Reesman and James Wilson lay out the ways in which space combat is counter-intuitive for policymakers and strategists:

Satellites move quickly, but predictably:  Satellites in commonly used circular orbits move at speeds between 3km/s and 8km/s, depending on their altitude. By contrast, an average bullet only travels about 0.75km/s. They are here, and then gone.

Space is big: The volume of space between low-earth orbit and geostationary orbit is about 200 trillion cubic kilometers. That is 190 times larger than the volume of Earth.

Timing is everything: Within the confines of the atmosphere, airplanes, tanks, and ships can nominally move in any direction. Satellites do not have that freedom. Due to the gravitational pull of Earth, satellites are always moving in either a circular or elliptical path, constantly in free-fall around the Earth. Getting two satellites in the same spot is not intuitive. Therefore, it requires careful planning and perfect timing.

Satellites maneuver slowly: While satellites move quickly, space is big, and that makes purposeful maneuvers seem relatively slow. Once a satellite is in orbit, it requires time and a large amount of delta-V to perform phasing maneuvers.

Given all of this, for engagements in space, maneuvers and actions will have to be planned far in advance, Reesman said in an interview. “Any conflict in space will be much slower and more deliberate than a Star Wars scene,” she said. “It requires a lot more long-term thinking and strategic placement of assets.


Radio signals can be used to jam an opponent’s satellites, or spoof them by sending harmful commands. This would be an extension of electronic warfare already used in naval and air battles.

Some nations, such as France, have gone so far as to talk about deploying weapons in space to protect their own satellites. However, the authors suggest that satellites using kinetic weapons to shoot down opposing satellites seems unlikely for now, given the extraordinary energy required to maneuver an orbital weapon into a proper trajectory. More likely would be a “T-bone” collision between satellites, which does not require plane matching but rather occurs when two orbits cross.

Nations do have a strong incentive to not destroy other satellites because of the potential to create hazardous debris that would potentially affect all nations’ assets in space—and debris generated in space has a lasting effect. However, in the immediacy of war, a nation may decide it is worth permanently losing access to some slots in geostationary orbit, due to debris, in order to win a ground-based war.


  1. Bruce Purcell says:

    Assume any war in near-Earth space will leave giant clouds of metalled gravel in all the orbits we’ve found useful so far. What next?

    1) No more satellites, or only cheap, easily replaceable satellites.
    2) Try new funky orbits, space boy! Previously inconvenient and ignored orbital slots will be safer.
    3) Heavily armored spaceships and satellites.
    4) Minesweepers funded by everyone who wants to use space.
    5) Travel to the Moon or other planets is no longer much riskier than an orbit around the Earth.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kinetic attack on an enemy satellite seems like inside the box thinking. How about high powered ground-based lasers (or even space-based lasers) which would fry the electronics in the enemy satellite, rendering it useless without creating debris one might come to regret?

    Much better would be some method of attack which somehow spoofed the enemy satellite — say, causing the European Galileo GPS system to send Euro-missiles to the wrong targets?

    Of course, China’s approach is to become the sole supplier for certain essential components of Western satellites (high quality, rapid delivery, low price). And dumb Westerners fall for it every time. As the old proverb says, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

  3. Lucklucky says:

    “Any conflict in space will be much slower and more deliberate than a Star Wars scene,”


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