Is Space Becoming More Accessible for Terrorists?

Terrorists Will be Using Space.  Image from Nellyfus on Flickr.  MoD added.
Sometime in the future, terrorists will be using space. Image from Nellyfus on Flickr. MoD added.

Part 2

In part 1 of these posts, we noted the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) basically said it was worried that terrorists will put satellites up in space within 31 years from this year.  Then the MoD gave examples, which while related to space, weren’t satellites or rockets.  The article these posts are based off of, doesn’t really say what terrorists will do with satellites in space, but everyone seems to agree that whatever they do, it will be bad.  This second post is to explain why terrorists will be using space, probably much sooner than MoD predicts.  But it will depend on a few criteria.

Let’s not argue but just accept that terrorists WILL send up satellites.  This is based on what they’ve done in the past.  Historically, they have proven themselves quite resourceful with using very cheap methods to attain goals.  In some ways, the materials to build small satellites are easier to obtain than the bomb-making materials they already use.  Smaller satellites, such as cubesats, picosats, and sprites, seem to be getting cheaper to build.  And, the terrorists are going to need to practice, not just building the satellites, but also practicing with them in space.

Cheap rocket launches might be available, soon.  XCOR’s Lynx will, when they start flying the rocket, be able to place a few small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  Virgin Galactic might offer those same capabilities with LauncherOne.  There’s also FireFly’s FireFly Alpha.  There are more who also wish to compete in the market of launching small satellites.  But of all of these, Virgin Galactic is the only one that appears to be nearly ready for their “space tourism” ventures.  Who knows exactly when the others will start launching their smaller rockets?  But when they finally do start competing with each other, the prices for launch services to LEO will likely tumble.

So perhaps they will use inexpensive picosats and sprite satellites to practice and cheap rockets to get payloads to LEO. Maybe it would also make sense to practice communicating through those small satellites?  Because these sorts of organizations need communications without interference to be effective.  Such communications satellites would require quite a few ground stations–likely mobile.  The terrorists might be able to build or buy inflatable mobile antennas and equipment like the ones GATR sells.  But maybe those are overkill for something like a picosat.  The good news about these antennas?  They also radiate energy and could possibly be targeted.

These things would happen in baby steps.  But the ultimate question is:  what kind of damage could terrorists do with satellites?  The answer might be found in what we’ve seen militaries do with their own satellites.  Accurate targeting (requires accurate missiles and delivery systems), secure and global communications (probably needs a good, reliable ground system), and better maps.  If you take SkyBox’s capabilities into consideration, it wouldn’t be beyond the pale for terrorists to eventually have real-time HD video to track enemy forces (but that would probably be in a war-time scenario).  Then there are countries like China, who are doing some very shady things with very maneuverable satellites.  But maybe things will be simpler than that.

Terrorists love shock value.  And they aren’t “rational actors”–at least not rational when looking through a US lens.  The biggest and perhaps shocking kind of damage would be for them to design and explode a satellite (likely more than one, probably), full of metal debris, in space.  Most rational nations, maybe even China, have agreed that filling the orbital “paths” around the Earth is a bad idea.  But terrorists who think they have nothing to lose, may ultimately choose such a tactic.  They could even, with the help of up-and-coming atomic nations, explode a nuke in space.

The problem is, there are many different, unforeseen ways for terrorists to damage systems that people, not just the military and government, rely on and use (which is why such conjecture is considered “wargaming”).  But what got us to that point may also be what gets us past the terrorism problem.  Good people are just as ingenious as bad people.  If you look at all the different ways people are testing small satellites today, and realize it’s just a stepping stone, you also realize just how much more is possible.  And who knows–even as people worry about terrorists and space junk, maybe nations will come together to finally figure out the space junk problem, thereby minimizing the effects of a terrorist attack in that form.

So is space becoming accessible to terrorists, to the point they will be able to operate satellites in space?  Considering their history and determination, that answer is probably “yes.”  Do we know what they will do with those assets once they are in space? That answer is almost entirely a guess.  Which may be why MoD itself really didn’t have examples for readers to think about.

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