A 20-year old military space satellite was shot down this week.
Air Force Space Command said DMSP-F13’s power subsystem experienced “a sudden spike in temperature” followed by “an unrecoverable loss of attitude control.” As DMSP operators were deciding to “render the vehicle safe” the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, identified a debris field near the satellite.
Sudden spikes in temperature don’t “just happen” in space. In fact, there must be an energy source to cause such an event – even here on Earth. The energy has to come from somewhere. What kinds of events can cause such a thing in near Earth orbit? There really isn’t much in the way of natural phenomena that can do it. Solar flares maybe, but they wouldn’t be precise enough to hit just one satellite.
But there is one thing that can do it: ground based anti-satellite lasers. Although there is very little public information about such weapons it’s widely acknowledged that several nations have experimented with them. There’s been quite a bit of speculation over the last fifteen years about such weapons, and a few other tests are believed to have happened. Nothing else really makes sense as a cause for this event.
So the question is, who shot it down? Was it a test of a US system, shooting down an old, unused satellite because we knew nobody would miss it? Or was another nation attempting to send us a message? There is a very real chance that either Russia or China wanted to let us know that they could shoot down our GPS satellites if they wanted to, and that there isn’t really anything we could do about it. Given how much we rely on those systems, that would be a huge tactical and strategic loss to the US in any conflict.
My money is on Russia, shooting it down as a warning for us not to get too involved in the Ukraine. Odds are good that whoever did it has found a quiet, plausibly-deniable way to let the White House know that they did it.