Military hardware has orbited Earth for decades, but no actual weapons have ever been deployed in space. That may change soon—and it may launch a major space race.
So this is how the war in space might begin: not with a bang but a clank. On April 15, more than 450 miles above Earth, an experimental NASA spacecraft called DART (Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology) fired its thrusters and closed in on a deactivated U.S. military communications satellite—and then gently bumped into it.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. The approaching craft had calculated its dwindling distance with lasers and was supposed to merely close in on the satellite and maneuver around it. This would demonstrate what are known as proximity operations, or “prox ops,” a key component of future satellite servicing. Instead DART demonstrated another key component of future satellite warfare: bumping into things. The first sign of trouble came when DART mysteriously shut down. At first, NASA ground controllers guessed that it had run out of fuel while it was still a few hundred feet from the satellite. But five days later, an Air Force tracking system spotted the target satellite in a new, higher orbit, making obvious the fact that DART had collided with the satellite. As a test intended to pave the way for new technologies to service orbiting satellites, this was an abject failure. But as an inadvertent demonstration of a basic but potentially devastating space-combat tactic—disabling enemy satellites by ramming them into useless orbits—the mission was a surprising triumph.
Will the Pentagon be carefully studying the DART data? Bet on it. The conquest of space has always served two essential purposes: scientific and technological advancement, and military advantage. It is a poorly held secret that NASA and the U.S. Air Force routinely transfer technologies back and forth between scientific and military programs. As DART demonstrated, virtually every system envisioned by the U.S. to extend our reach in the solar system also has a potential offensive use, from DART ‘s own autonomous rendezvous technology to communications and geographic survey systems that have been evolving for the past four decades. Even the spectacular Apollo lunar landing 36 years ago—executed by Air Force test pilots—was a thinly veiled effort to beat the Soviets to the moon and send a clear message of space superiority. Today, President George W. Bush is every bit as interested as John F. Kennedy was in gaining the upper hand in space. The White House will soon issue a new national security directive that will bring the nation a significant step closer to fielding weapons up there.