War in space: Kamikazes, kidnapper satellites and lasers

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Story highlights

  • US adversaries like Russia and China are racing to gain greater control of space
  • Lasers could be used to temporarily blind or permanently damage satellites

Washington (CNN)It was May 2014 when a small team of American airmen monitoring a Russian satellite launch saw something they had never seen before. An object the team thought was a piece of debris from the launch suddenly came to life.  

"The one object that we assumed was a piece of debris started to maneuver in close proximity to the (rocket) booster," recalled Lt. Gen. David Buck, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
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Buck, who oversees US military space forces, said the deliberate maneuvers the mystery object made close to the rocket's booster were a red flag. Getting that close to another object in space is a complex feat, as objects can move as fast as 17,500 miles per hour.
"That got our attention," Buck said.
In other words, what the US military was witnessing was not debris at all, but instead a satellite with a dangerous capability, one that could allow it to cozy up next to another satellite and potentially destroy it. 
As US adversaries like Russia and China sprint to gain greater control of space, the US finds itself in a new, more ominous arms race with a dizzying array of capabilities that sound like Hollywood creations but are now reality -- from what could be kamikaze and kidnapper satellites launched by Russia and China to lasers and space drones deployed by the US. 

Kamikazes

The Russian satellite is officially known as Kosmos 2499 but it has been given a more daunting nickname: "kamikaze," a spacecraft expressly designed to maneuver up close to another satellite to disable or destroy it. In other words, it's a satellite that could go on the attack. 
"Everything that has that type of capability can be easily changed into an offensive capability," said 1st Lt. Andrew Engle, who watches threats to military and civilian satellites from the space operations floor at Vandenberg. 
"This is something that is on the new frontier of space that we're seeing from our adversaries," said Engle. "It's highly technical, highly skilled, and it's something that we're definitely, obviously, watching closely". 
Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former commander of Air Force space command, likened the satellite to a space Trojan horse. 
"You could have something on orbit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a communications satellite, when in actuality, it is also a weapon," said Shelton.
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Kosmos 2499 is far from the only threat. In September 2014, just a few months after Kosmos was placed in orbit, Russia launched an additional satellite named Luch with both maneuvering and spying capabilities. 
"This satellite has been maneuvering through geosynchronous space ... cozying up close to various communications satellites, listening to what traffic is flowing over those," said Paul Graziani, CEO of civilian satellite tracker Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI). 
Over the course of a year, Graziani's team has watched as Luch parked itself next to three US commercial satellites and one European satellite. The Russians flew the satellite close enough to collect both civilian and, possibly, sensitive military information. 
Graziani was charged with delivering the bad news to US-owned commercial satellite company Intelsat. 
"As soon as we figured that out, that it was parking next to an Intelsat satellite, we picked up the phone and we called Intelsat and we let them know, they've got a new neighbor," said Graziani. "They were not happy". 
But Luch's capabilities don't end with the ability to spy.
"If the operators of this spacecraft so chose, they could direct it to actually hit another spacecraft," said Graziani. 
Like Kosmos, Luch's ability to maneuver has the potential to make it into a satellite killer. 
The Russian government did not respond to CNN's request for comment. 

Kidnappers

AGI's team members watched from their operations floor as a Chinese satellite moved close to a second smaller satellite. Launched in 2013, the Shiyan, meaning "experiment" in Chinese, was "experimenting" shadowing the smaller satellite, according to AGI. But then something unexpected happened: The smaller satellite repeatedly disappeared and then reappeared on their screens.
"We saw the approach, we saw the larger spacecraft come close to the smaller spacecraft, and then we no longer saw the smaller spacecraft," said Graziani.
The only reasonable explanation, experts say, is that the Shiyan has a robotic arm that was repeatedly grabbing and then releasing its smaller partner.
The Chinese government acknowledged the satellite's robotic arm, saying the satellite is "mainly used in space debris observation," according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
But space watchers like Graziani see a more sinister application. 
"You could grab ahold of a satellite and maneuver it out of its mission," said Graziani.
If true, it would be a new threatening capability, allowing the Shiyan to essentially kidnap another satellite.

Lasers

In the Persian Gulf, an instantaneous burst of energy destroys targets -- first on the surface, then in the air. It's deadly firepower moving, literally, at the speed of light. Obliterating its target, the Navy says, like a long-distance blowtorch.
This is the dramatic account of the US military's test of its first operational laser weapon as seen on video released by the Defense Department.
Today the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) is deployed on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf to defeat incoming threats at sea but multiple countries around the world are testing lasers that can reach space. These directed energy weapons could be used from the ground or deployed on space assets to temporarily blind or permanently damage satellites.
"You can aim a laser at a satellite's sensor and try to make it hard to see," said Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes."
With power dialed up high that same laser could permanently fry the satellite's sensor. But "very expensive and important satellites should have shutters" to block this kind of threat, said Grego, who considers these types of activities more of a nuisance than a space attack.
Lasers that would be powerful enough to completely destroy a satellite or its components like solar panels have not been developed yet, according to Grego.

Space drone 

Moving further into the realm of science fiction, the US military has developed the first space drone, the X37B. Bearing a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, the drone is officially a reusable spacecraft for carrying payloads into space.
"The nice part about it is you can bring it back, deploy it again, and we're experimenting with it," said Gen. John Hyten, Commander of US Strategic Command.
Its other missions are classified, but the drone's maneuverability, payload space and ability to stay in orbit for hundreds of days have space watchers and countries like Russia and China wondering whether the X-37B would one day be used as a space fighter jet, something the Defense Department denies.
"I can tell you what it is, I can tell the world what it is, and it's not a weapon," Hyten said. "But people can look at it, and they can believe what they want to believe."