What do we call these volunteers? Fools or heroes?
War is coming to outer space, and the Pentagon warns it is not yet ready, following years of underinvesting while the military focused on a host of threats on Earth.
Russia and China are years ahead of the United States in developing the means to destroy or disable satellites that the U.S. military depends on for everything from gathering intelligence to guiding precision bombs, missiles and drones.
Now the Pentagon is trying to catch up — pouring billions more dollars into hardening its defenses against anti-satellite weapons, training troops to operate in the event their space lifeline is cut, and honing ways to retaliate against a new form of combat that experts warn could affect millions of people, cause untold collateral damage and spread to battlefields on Earth.
“We are now approaching a point where ‘Star Wars’ is not just a movie,” said Steve Isakowitz, CEO of The Aerospace Corp., a government-funded think tank that serves as the military’s leading adviser on space.
He said the U.S. can no longer afford to take its dominance for granted.
“That supremacy in space has enabled us to have the world’s greatest war-fighting capability … whether it is our soldiers on the field, our drones that fly overhead, our bombers that travel around the world, intelligence we collect,” he told POLITICO. “More and more every day, literally, we become more dependent on it.
“And our adversaries know that,” he added in an interview.
Americans’ fears of a possible Soviet military advantage helped inspire the first space race after the Sputnik launch in 1957, and former President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program in the 1980s sought to create a space-based shield against a nuclear missile attack. In recent decades, though, space has mostly been a realm for peaceful exploration and collaboration, typified by the Russian rockets that carry American astronauts to the International Space Station.
But the worry that cooperation could turn to confrontation has been in the background for years. A 2001 report issued by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that an attack on space systems during a conflict “should not be considered an improbable act.”
“If the U.S. is to avoid a ‘Space Pearl Harbor,’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on the U.S. space system,” the report said.
Some experts speculate that military leaders never followed through on the warnings, in part because the terrorist attacks later that year drew far more attention to what resulted in two ground wars in the Middle East.
One sign of the new urgency is President Donald Trump’s recent call for establishing a “space force” — a separate military branch responsible for ensuring American supremacy in space, a role now primarily played by the Air Force.
“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said last month. He added: “We have the Air Force, we’ll have the space force.”
Already, the Air Force, which oversees an estimated 90 percent of the military’s space operations, regularly conducts space war games, including one in which troops simulate how to attribute potential attacks on U.S. satellites. One that took place last year was set in 2027 and included international partners from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Army soldiers also now regularly undergo training to operate in the field as if their GPS signals went dark.
Meanwhile, Trump’s new National Security Strategy, issued late last year, designated space a “vital interest” for the first time and directed military to “advance space as a priority domain.”
“Any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing,” it says.
Trump’s attitude has made a big difference, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told POLITICO.
“We have a president who has said now, publicly, that we have to expect that space will be a war-fighting domain,” Wilson said in an interview. “That’s a very big deal.”
The Trump administration’s latest budget request seeks $12.5 billion for military space efforts — not including secret projects. One focus will be what Wilson calls a “more dependable architecture” for the four Air Force satellites designed to provide early warning of missile launches.
Those satellites are crucial to U.S. readiness in one of the most perilous global flashpoints, the Korean Peninsula.
“We stare at the Earth and look for the telltale signs of a rocket launch and within seconds, detect that launch and detect where it’s heading and alert the National Command Center,” she explained. “So whenever the television shows that picture of North Korea launched a missile, that arc actually comes from the Air Force.”
A major focus of the new effort will also be defending the Air Force’s 31 Global Positioning System satellites.
“The Air Force provides GPS for the world, for about 1 billion people every day,” Wilson said. “The timing signal for the New York Stock Exchange comes from the Air Force GPS satellites. If you’ve gone to an ATM machine, that is connected to GPS satellites for the timing signal so you can’t simultaneously take money out of two ATM machines. GPS enables Uber Eats, all kinds of things.”
“In this budget,” she added, “we’ve proposed to upgrade GPS to what we call GPS III, which is more resistant to jamming.”
In some ways, GPS is already under assault. During the Iraq War, forces loyal to Saddam Hussein used electronic jammers to try to block the signal for precision-guided munitions that relied on GPS for targeting, according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, which promotes sustainable and peaceful uses for space.
More recently, Russia has used GPS and satellite jammers to try to disrupt space communications in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Weeden said. “In that sense, it’s already a part of conflict on Earth.”
The Pentagon is also making new investments in technologies that allow the military to track, in real time, all space assets and ensure that the two dozen military communications satellites rely on an advanced frequency that cannot be jammed.
“We must expect that war of any kind will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that eventuality,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein told the Air Force Association, an industry group, in February.
Some still think it’s not enough. War in space “is going to happen,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, in an interview. “It’s just a matter of whether it happens in the next couple of years or the next five or six years.”
He said he worries about whether the Air Force is making space enough of a priority. “They always say, ‘We got this, we’re planning for this in the future,’” Rogers said. “But when you ask them to prioritize space this year, they say they can’t. People have to remember when it comes to fighting a war, our eyes and ears are in space. We can’t let adversaries take our eyes and ears out.”
When the Pentagon talks about a space war, it doesn’t mean troops in celestial camouflage, maneuvering with jet packs and targeting the enemy with laser guns. The conflict could take many different — and largely silent — forms, ranging from jamming a GPS satellite to temporarily blinding a sensor with a laser or relying on a cyberattack to disrupt services.
Revelations is Bill Hicks’ last special ever, taped in 1992, and features him at the height of his genius. Recorded at the Dominion Theater in London, Bill Hicks opens our eyes and minds to the hypocrisy and ludicrousness of the world around us.
In a study published in the journal Astrobiology next month, the group sets out its belief that while NASA continues to focus its search for extraterrestrial life on the hunt for other alien microorganisms, space viruses remain critically under-researched. The team, led by biologist Kenneth Stedman of Portland State University, is calling for scientists to develop strategies to detect these viruses – and to see if they can spread to humans from outer space.
“More than a century has passed since the discovery of the first viruses,” Stedman said in a statement. “Entering the second century of virology, we can finally start focusing beyond our own planet.”
Viruses are infectious agents that replicate inside the living cells of other organisms. They can infect anything, from animals and plants to microorganisms like bacteria. The team behind the study believes that because more viruses exist on Earth than any other cellular organism, they should exist on other planets, too. The pursuit to find these astronomical agents has led Steadman, along with colleagues Aaron Berliner and Tomohiro Mochizuki from UC Berkeley and Tokyo Institute of Technology respectively, to create a new discipline in astrobiology known as “astrovirology.”
“With this paper, we hope to inspire integration of virus research into astrobiology and also point out pressing unanswered questions in astrovirology, particularly regarding the detection of virus biosignatures and whether viruses could be spread extraterrestrially,” Stedman said.
Speaking to Gizmodo, Stedman tried to allay fears about the future discovery of viruses in outer space. “Viruses have a bad rap. If we find viruses on other planets it is an indication of life, not something to be scared of,” he said.
The new research, led by French scientist Albert Jambon and published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, used geochemical analyses to differentiate Earthly and extraterrestrial metals found in a range of Bronze Age artefacts from across the world. By studying the ratios of iron, cobalt and nickel found within the artefacts, researchers created a system to differentiate iron produced through smelting of ore, and ‘pre-made’ iron of meteoric origin.
For context, meteorites were already recognized as a major source of iron, but the scientific community was still on the fence as to the extent to which meteoric iron contributed to Bronze Age iron artefact construction. Iron weapons crafted during the Bronze Age were extremely rare and prized possessions (kind of like Valyrian steel in the Game of Thrones).
The Iron Age began around 1200 BCE while The Bronze Age played out 2,000 years prior, so anyone who boasted iron weapons or jewelry had a significant military or economic advantage over their contemporaries.
Jambon performed non-destructive chemical analyses of samples using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer in situ in the museums where the Bronze Age artefacts are currently stored. The objects studied include: “beads from Gerzeh (Egypt, −3200 BCE); a dagger from Alaca Höyük (Turkey, −2500 BCE); a pendant from Umm el-Marra (Syria, −2300 BCE); an axe from Ugarit (Syria, −1400 BCE) and several others from the Shang dynasty civilization (China, −1400 BCE); and even the dagger, bracelet, and headrest of Tutankhamun (Egypt, −1350 BCE).”
Terrestrial iron ore must be reduced, removing the oxygen contained within, before it can be crafted into weapons and other objects. But the meteoric iron was already in a metallic state, and was thus ready for use, without the need for any anachronistic innovations such as smelting, which marked the beginning of the Iron Age.
Celestial bodies like meteorites, asteroids and comets are created when planets shatter and break up. “When large celestial bodies like our planet are forming, nearly all nickel drifts towards the molten iron core,” write the study’s authors, indicating that mining techniques common during the Bronze Age would not have gone down far enough to extract significant quantities of nickel or iron.