Well, somebody has to mention it to sell the papers sometime, and this time it was the Times of India. The story is that the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is predicting bad guys are going to be able to launch their own nefarious satellites on rockets owned by private companies. Even worse, they predict this will happen by 2045 OR EARLIER!!!
This is such a ridiculously safe “prediction” with 31 years of wiggle room, it’s hard to believe it’s news. It’s almost as safe as a technology analyst’s prediction that the next iPhone will be faster, lighter, and have better battery life (remember, you heard that here first). In many parts of life, there are bad guys. Heck, the medium you and I use for this blog has been abused almost since the time the internet was invented. Technology is morality neutral. It can be used to good ends, or it can be used for evil. So why should small satellites and private space launch be off-limits?
This blog has talked about the changes and acceleration of the small satellite business for quite a while. Probably the biggest change, which may continue for quite a bit longer, is the amount of money required to build, launch, and operate small satellites will continue to diminish. And this is MoD’s point of concern. They think these things are just getting too darned cheap–so cheap that terrorist groups can buy small satellites, approach a private launch provider like SpaceX, and then get them in orbit.
The examples MoD have given are more to do with mundane and terrestrial-based uses against satellites. Which isn’t a surprise when one considers most first world nations rely on satellites for a lot of different uses. GPS is the most obvious tool used by the general population, and that can go hand-in-hand with satellite imagery. And that imagery is ubiquitous thanks to mapping applications like Google Maps/Earth, and Bing Maps.
These are the listed threats, then (notice how satellite procurement isn’t required for these to be enacted): Inexpensive imagery anytime of military or police locations and activities? Check! Fire sale GPS signal jamming? Check! Unimaginable Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about these evil small satellites orbiting the Earth? Check! But nothing really concrete about what terrorists might do with those satellites appear in the article.
The cheap high-resolution imagery argument is not new. There were other people back in 2008 (and earlier) who were fretting about this problem, too. But ultimately, common sense has won out on this, at least in the US. Just this last June, the US government finally gave permission to satellite imagery provider and operator, DigitalGlobe, to allow sales of imagery with finer resolutions than 50 cm (19.7 in). One of the arguments DigitalGlobe floated in favor of being allowed to do this was that they were competing against the cheaper imagery drones and aircraft. In other words, terrorists already had access to high resolution imagery–but they didn’t need satellites to get it.
The GPS jamming is maybe more compelling, with MoD giving examples of the North Koreans playing around with a jamming system. However, and ironically, GPS signal jamming is akin to painting some red rings around the jammer, and placing big, cartoonish signs with the words “send bomb here” pointing to it. A site or mobile truck radiating radio waves to disrupt other radio waves, particularly those radio waves used by the military, quickly gets attention and soon ceases to exist (the US military have done so in the past). So maybe part of the answer is to get the military to do what they did while using those Iraqi jammers for target practice.
But these examples, while related to space, aren’t the culmination of MoD’s ultimate fear: terrorist-owned satellites. More about that aspect of MoD’s fear, tomorrow.