In 2007, China sent a ballistic missile arcing into space on a collision course with one of its own defunct satellites, destroying its orbital target. The U.S. responded in kind the following year, using a ship-based missile to knock one of its own malfunctioning satellites out of the sky.
The Pentagon colored its anti-satellite mission as a means to disperse the satellite's supply of toxic propellant before it de-orbited and crashed to Earth, and while that might be partially true, the launch also provided important radar and targeting data that will help the DoD monitor (and potentially target) space objects in the future. It also sent a strong message. Both exercises were demonstrations of military capabilities that reach into space, where a new game of strategic and technological one-upmanship is just beginning to unfold.
Space is set to become a far more crowded place over the next few decades as the cost of launching people and payloads into orbit declines—the commercial spaceflight industry is very optimistic in its cost curve assessment. And as more governments and commercial actors rub shoulders in orbit, a new kind of threat picture is emerging.
"There will be security concerns," said Jeff Trauberman, vice president of Boeing's Space, Intelligence, and Missile Defense Systems. "There will certainly be security operations going on in space. More and more countries are working on military space-related activities. So it's inevitable."
Last month, Elon Musk's SpaceX made another bit of spaceflight history by guiding the first stage of its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket safely back through the atmosphere to a controlled splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. Recovery of the rocket stage was the first step in creating a reusable rocket system, one that SpaceX hopes will drastically reduce the high costs of launching people and payloads into orbit and the space beyond. SpaceX is just one of a number of spaceflight companies aiming to make space more accessible to a growing base of customers that include governments, researchers, and commercial interests.
"There's no question in my mind that the future of space is going to include a larger and larger number and more diverse set of owners of Earth orbiting satellites," said Dr. Kenneth Washington, v.p. for Lockheed Martin Space Systems STAR Labs. "New innovations are going to make it more affordable for both the current owners and new entrants."
Lockheed's space systems engineers develop everything from new compact propulsion systems to smaller sensor payloads for satellites to stronger, lightweight materials that will help reduce the launch costs for satellites. Trimming weight from space hardware is one way the spaceflight industry has traditionally slashed launch costs, and better computer modeling and technologies like 3-D printing extend the art of the possible further.
But reducing costs by reducing kilos is only one way to go about cutting launch expenses. Spaceflight companies including SpaceX are trying to change the economics of launch altogether. It's tough to know exactly what it costs to get into space these days—most launch services don't advertise their prices, according to senior analyst Jonathan Beland of aerospace consultant Futron. Based on industry chatter during the past few years, placing a payload into orbit aboard International Launch Services Proton rocket or Arianespace's Ariane 5 launch vehicle will set a customer back roughly $100 million, if not more.
Via its homegrown rocket technology, SpaceX claims to have already cut that figure in half. Bucking industry protocol, SpaceX does advertise its launch prices: $56.5 million to put 13 metric tons in orbit aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has stated publicly that he thinks his reusable rocket stage could reduce costs to the range of $5 million to $6 million. He's not the only one banking on reusability as the key to cost reductions. British aerospace firm Reaction Engines is developing a reusable space plane that would take off and land on a conventional runway, using a proprietary single-stage rocket engine to hurl itself from the upper atmosphere into orbit. If the design proves feasible—it has passed design reviews by and received funding from the European Space Agency—it could deliver more than 15 tons to orbit at a fraction of the current cost of launch, requiring only two days of turnaround between trips.
As satellites and other payload grow smaller, alternative methods of launch based on reusable first stage propulsion also become more feasible. Both Virgin Galactic and the U.S. Department of Defense are looking at high-flying conventional aircraft—Virgin's WhiteKnightTwo and Boeing's F-15E, respectively—to launch small satellites into space using small rockets launched from the belly of the plane. The aircraft would serve as the reusable first propulsion stage.
A greater human presence in space over the next few decades will also drive launch costs lower. Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based builder of inflatable space habitats, eventually wants to turn its technology into a series of habitable space stations that rent orbital real estate to tourists or governments that can't afford a ride on the International Space Station. Two unmanned prototypes are currently conducting tests in orbit. "Something like that could have a viable business plan," said Dr. George Sowers, vice president of strategic architecture at United Launch Alliance. With more regular destinations to launch to and return from, demand for launch services would naturally increase. "Those kinds of business plans could be game changers," Sowers added.
But as the 2007 and 2008 anti-satellite tests showed, a more crowded orbital space will generate new risks right alongside opportunity. Space-based communications and sensor capabilities that are economically and strategically critical back on Earth are vulnerable space assets and tantalizing targets for military planners. More actors in space increases the likelihood that satellite data might be intercepted or compromised. And more hardware in orbit increases the chance of genuine accidents—collisions between satellites, for instance—that can also lead to dangerous misunderstandings between states.
"This is something the guys at space command worry about a lot, and it comes back to situational awareness," Sowers said. "The more and more nations that have access to space, the more the United States' dominance in space will erode. You have to start worrying about protecting the assets that we have, you have to worry about countermeasures."
For the defense industry and U.S. military planners, space defense over the next couple of decades will be less about missiles and more about situational awareness. With space tourists launching regularly into the upper atmosphere and possibly to space stations or even the moon, space planes and rockets regularly traversing the atmosphere, and a whole mess of countries placing all kinds of hardware in the sky by the 2030s, monitoring the crowded and debris-strewn landscape will be more critical than any single capability. The U.S. government has vocally expressed concerns about anti-satellite weapons, satellite jamming, and other strategic operations in space, and the companies that provide the U.S. government with space assets are cognizant of these potential threats, Boeing's Trauberman said.
In fact, the new strategic landscape is already taking shape. China, excluded from the International Space Station because its space program is military rather than civilian, has placed its own space station in orbit from which it could one day conduct any number of space-based operations. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Defense periodically launches a small, robotic version of a space shuttle known as the X-37B into orbit, sometimes for more than a year at a time, on highly secretive missions. Some speculate that the X-37B could deploy weapons in space or meddle with rival satellites, while others have posited that it functions more like a conventional spy satellite.
The race for the strategic high ground in space also continues back on Earth. Back in 2008, when the Pentagon demonstrated its anti-satellite missile capability, a half-century-old radar vessel named the USNS Observation Island tracked and targeted the satellite via a state-of-the-art radar array code-named "Cobra Judy." Just this month, the Pentagon announced that a new ship, the USNS Howard O. Lorenzen, had reached initial operating capacity and that operations will be handed off from the Navy to the Air Force in short order. Like the Observation Island, the Lorenzen is better known by the code name of its primary hardware, a piece of equipment dubbed "Cobra Judy Replacement." It is a brand new and even more sophisticated radar array designed specifically for tracking objects moving beyond the edge of the atmosphere in the decades ahead.
—Clay Dillow, Special to CNBC.com