Russia sending mystery weapon into space?

Weapons theories that have alarmed the US include a nuclear bomb and a nuclear-powered satellite

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Putin claims that Russia does not support the development of nuclear capabilities in space, Photo: REUTERS
Putin claims that Russia does not support the development of nuclear capabilities in space, Photo: REUTERS
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Washington was upset on February 14th by news of a mysterious Russian space weapon. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called on the White House to release intelligence about a "serious threat to national security." American media reported that it refers to the Russian space nuclear system, which has not yet been deployed, and which can threaten American and allied satellites. What could it be?

Most of the first reports are contradictory, some media described a nuclear-powered spacecraft, while others announced that it was a spacecraft with nuclear weapons. There are generally three options: nuclear weapons designed to destroy satellites, which would be stationed on the ground and launched only when they needed to be used; nuclear weapons that would be stationed in orbit; or a nuclear-powered satellite that would not be a bomb in itself but would use nuclear energy to power some other type of device.

Russia space weapons
photo: Graphic News

If Russia plans to send a nuclear weapon into full orbit - instead of a part where it cannot completely go around the Earth - it would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Nuclear detonations in space are also prohibited by the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by Russia. Apart from being disputed in legal terms, it would be a devastating and merciless weapon.

On Earth, the intense radiation from a nuclear explosion is not only harmful in itself but also creates a huge shock wave, causes fires and creates radioactive waste.

In the vacuum of space, radiation realizes its full potential. The electromagnetic pulse created by an orbital explosion can damage electronics on satellites across the sky.

When America conducted a nuclear test high in the atmosphere in 1962, known as "Starfish Prime", it damaged not only satellites in the field of view but also those on the other side of the Earth because the planet's magnetic field directed the radiation. That radiation eventually damaged or destroyed about a third of the satellites in low Earth orbit.

If Russia were to carry out a similar detonation today, with about 8 active satellites in low orbit, it would not only hit American satellites, but also Russian, Chinese and other countries' satellites. It would also affect the International Space Station, currently home to three Russians, as well as China's Tiangong space station, currently home to a crew of three.

US military and intelligence satellites, particularly those used for nuclear command and control, have hardened electronics to withstand such impacts. This is not the case with commercial satellites.

In short, an attack of this kind seems more suited to desperate states like North Korea and Iran, who have little of their own space capabilities to protect and who, in a moment of crisis, have nothing to lose.

Russia's goal by sending a nuclear bomb into orbit, instead of using existing ground-based missiles, may be to reach geosynchronous orbit - an important belt about 36000 kilometers from the Earth's surface, compared to low orbit, which is below 2000 kilometers - points out Matthew Bunn from Harvard University.

Satellites in geosynchronous orbit circle the Earth once a day and therefore appear to be broadly fixed in the sky, which is useful for broadcasting, missile warning, and more. Many valuable US surveillance and military communications satellites are located there. Boone points out that existing nuclear missiles cannot reach that height.

Another theory about the type of weapon, as reported by the "NewsHour" portal, could be that Russia intends to send a nuclear-powered satellite with electronic warfare capabilities. The purpose of electronic warfare is to disrupt signals sent or received by a targeted satellite; most such attacks are temporary. Many countries, including America and Russia, have ground-based electronic warfare platforms that can target satellites. Doing so from space is more difficult, but could allow for more focused and persistent attacks, especially if the weapon can be positioned close to the target.

Russia is known to have researched such systems. A report on global anti-satellite capabilities published last year by the NGO Secure World said: "New evidence suggests that Russia may be developing high-potential space-based electronic warfare platforms to complement its existing ground-based platforms."

An article published in the specialized journal "Space Review" describes a nuclear-powered satellite designed for these purposes and named Crew. Dmitry Stefanovich of the Russian Academy of Sciences also points to a separate Russian project known as Zeus, a nuclear-powered "space tug" planned for around 2030 that could have various capabilities, including signal jamming.

Why would it be powered by a nuclear reactor? It's also an old idea: the Americans first sent a nuclear reactor in 1965, and the Soviet Union sent over 40 such satellites. Their advantage is that they can generate a lot of energy. This allowed Soviet satellites to carry more powerful radars. Today, it would allow Russian satellites to carry more powerful jammers. The journal "Space Review" described Russian documents that state that nuclear reactors on satellites enable the installation of "jammers operating in a wide range of frequencies." If placed in a highly elliptical or geosynchronous orbit - which keeps the satellite above the same point on Earth for an extended period of time - it would allow “continuous jamming of electronic systems over large areas.

Russia rejects the American claims

Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia is against deploying nuclear weapons in space, and his defense minister categorically rejected US claims that Russia is developing nuclear capabilities for space.

"Our position is clear and transparent: we have always been categorically against and now we are against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space," Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

"We call not only for the respect of all agreements that exist in that area, but we have repeatedly offered to strengthen joint work in that area."

He said that Russia's activities in space are no different from those of other countries, including the US.

Commenting on the American allegations, Shojgu said that there are no plans that unnamed sources in the USA are talking about.

"First, there are no such projects - nuclear weapons in space. Second, the US knows that it does not exist," he told Shoigu Putin.

He accused the White House of trying to scare US lawmakers into earmarking funds for Ukraine as part of Washington's plan to inflict, as he said, a strategic defeat on Russia.

He said that the second reason for the alleged leak of information about Russian weapons was actually to encourage Russia to engage in a dialogue on strategic stability.

Economist/Reuters

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