A British company has announced plans to launch two new “space tugs” designed to attach to old communications satellites and give them a life-extending boost in orbit.
But the Space Drone tugs, built by London-based Effective Space, are capable of so much more. They could help to clean up orbital junk that endangers satellites and space stations. And under the right circumstances, they—and spacecraft like them—could become weapons.
The Space Drone is the latest in a growing number of satellite models that can, with the proverbial flip of a switch, transform from peaceful space tools to orbital aggressors. These “dual-use” satellites, including several types of orbital inspection and repair spacecraft, arguably raise the risk of war in space.
Weaponizable satellites are “the Pandora’s box of space operations,” James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller who also advised U.S. Space Command, told The Daily Beast.
“Until recently… satellites in orbit were assumed to be untouchable and so were built without any sensory equipment to detect someone nearby,” Oberg added.
The Space Drone and other dual-use satellites that could hijack, damage, or destroy other spacecraft have changed that.
The 800-pound, cube-shape Space Drone is essentially an orbital tugboat. The spacecraft features a docking system and a small motor. A Space Drone can maneuver close to an aging satellite that’s slowly falling back to Earth, attach to it, fire up its own motor, and shove the comms sat back into its proper place.
Effective Space’s first two Space Drones, which are scheduled to launch into a geostationary orbit atop a Russian Proton rocket in 2020, “will significantly extend the life of two communication satellites,” Effective Space states on its website.
Fixed geostationary orbits, 22,000 miles up, are ideal locations for communications satellites that need to remain over the same spot on the planet.
But according to Anatoly Zak, a space expert and author, the tugs could also “remove space junk.” Instead of boosting old but still active satellites, the Space Drones could attach themselves to orbital debris—which poses a collision risk to active satellites—and direct the junk into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.
And there’s no reason a Space Drone couldn’t do the same thing to an active satellite, in essence hijacking it and sending it falling to its destruction.
It’s not clear which country or company will benefit from the Space Drones’ capabilities. The company either doesn’t have a customer yet, or isn’t ready to announce it. “Stay tuned,” Daniel Campbell, managing director of Effective Space, told The Daily Beast.
Oberg pointed out that Russia’s satellites generally are less efficient than Western models and tend to run out of fuel faster. Moscow in particular could use space tugs for peaceful purposes.
A tug’s military potential could be a sweetener for Russia or other countries. “There is of course a potential that certain regimes will find such technology abusively interesting,” Campbell admitted. He compared the Space Drone to autonomous cars, lasers, drugs, and software bots, all technologies with the “potential to be abused.”
Campbell said Effective Space would abide by all regulations, submit to international oversight and monitoring and, perhaps most importantly, retain control of its Space Drones at all times.
“We are not selling our Space Drones,” Campbell said. “We are owning and operating the fleet, and provide our offering as a service. It means we maintain full control on our assets at any given time from design, manufacturing, launch, service and the final deorbiting and decommissioning of our spacecraft.”
But Effective Space isn’t the only organization developing space tugs. Russian firm RSC Energia, European company Airbus, and Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral in the United States are also developing space tugs similar to the Space Drone, as is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Effective Space might retain full control of its weaponizable spacecraft, but there’s no guarantee other space tug-makers will do the same. Even the suspicion that a country might turn its tugs into weapons could have serious consequences, MIT researchers Matthew Richards, Philip Springmann, and Michelle McVey warned back in 2005 (PDF).
“The potential for negative international reaction to a U.S. orbital correction capability is one the key challenges facing space tug implementation,” the researchers wrote in a joint study. “What if space tugs are perceived as a space weapon and the U.S. government faces stiff international resistance?”
In that case, the space tugs would have lots of company. There’s mounting mutual suspicion among space powers. In 2007, the Chinese military used a rocket to destroy a decommissioned satellite as part of an unannounced weapons test, scattering thousands of pieces of dangerous debris and drawing harsh rebukes from foreign governments.
Three years later in 2010, the U.S. Air Force deployed its X-37B robotic mini-shuttle for the first time. The Air Force has declined to say what exactly its two X-37Bs have been doing during their sometimes years-long missions, despite Chinese protests.
The 28-foot-long X-37Bs could conduct inspection missions that put them in close proximity to other spacecraft. Oberg said he believes the X-37Bs have tested sensors meant to help U.S. spacecraft detect an incoming attack.
Russia, for its part, launched three mysterious spacecraft between 2013 and 2015. Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499, and Kosmos-2504 have been tracked conducting rapid maneuvers that could allow them to intercept and repair—or interfere with—other satellites. China and the United States have developed their own repair spacecraft with similar maneuvering capability.
Once space tugs start appearing in orbit in coming years, orbital tensions could only get worse. “It’s a box full of doubt that this capability opens,” Oberg said.