Ep. 709: Space Weapons

Last week we learned that Russia might be planning nuclear weapons to take out satellites in space. What is the current and future possibility of weapons in space and what are the treaties designed to prevent them?


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:49] Astronomy cast. Episode 709 Space Weapons. Welcome to Astronomy cast for space journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, I’m the publisher of university. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Like I said, planetary sciences. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:12] Yeah, yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:13] Yeah, yeah. Well, how’s it going? 

Pamela Gay [00:02:17] I hate that we have to do episodes on topics like this. I just hate, but it’s necessary. And we are here to inform you even about things we don’t like. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:27] Well, before we get into the dreaded work that we have to talk about. Yeah, just what a rule. If I run this problem one time, I talk to trains and they enjoy my podcast universe podcast? And ask me how, you know, like, is there some place to learn, like, information, like topic based about space anime, ideally with, you know, a PhD astronomer? Me and I have to explain this thing called Astronomy Cast. Like, they have no idea. And so, I’m like, I’m exasperated by how difficult it is to let people know about the things that we all of the different, you know, media properties that we create. So I just want to just like if you’re listening to Astronomy Cast, you like this show from Fraser. And Pamela is great. I sure wish they did other things. But yeah, that’ll never happen. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:28] Yeah, we can email. Can we do interviews? And I was just like, no, go talk to Fraser. We do not do interviews on Astronomy Cast. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:36] Yeah, yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:38] She she’s the expert interviewer. Go, go talk to him. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:43] So if you weren’t already aware, I have a whole podcast there as, like, well, over a thousand episodes on my podcast with views from Nobel Prize winners and, space scientists as well. All the other audio that I do. Pamela, you do. 

Pamela Gay [00:04:02] Escape Velocity space news, which is a completely different tone from what Universe Today does. We keep people abreast of important things, like how many space toilets there are. The current count is nine, by the way. And if you want to improve your coasts because crabs are eating the roots of all of your plants at otters, these these are the breaking news stories of joy that we bring you on escape Velocity space news. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:30] Now you release it as a podcast as well. 

Pamela Gay [00:04:32] Yeah, yeah, that can drive as a podcast. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:34] Yeah. Perfect. So there you go. And then the other thing that we are associated with is 365 degrees in astronomy. And so we’re often in that but also all of our other space friends. And so if you want a really nice collection of different space podcasters, check out 365 Days of Astronomy. So there’s like four space podcasts right there, not to mention all the other stuff. So that is like. 

Pamela Gay [00:04:58] And they’re all completely different. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:00] Yeah. And I’m sure this covers it again another couple of months where I’ve, where it’s built up to the point where I just have to clarify for everybody and we all do all these different things. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:09] Yeah, yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:11] Last week we learned that Russia might be sending nuclear weapons to take out satellites in space. What is the current and future possibility of weapons in space and what’s treaties designed to prevent them? So let’s start with the news first before we move on to the history. So what is the news that we’re hearing? 

Pamela Gay [00:05:31] So last Tuesday it was leaked from the Congress critters that, who are on the House Intelligence Committee that Russia is working on some sort of a space weapon, and they called for all members of the house to have access to the documents and a meeting of what’s called the Gang of Eight, the people who get access to the most secure of the secure information on national defense was scheduled for last Thursday. What has come out of this, from different sources is we have, according to, The Washington Post, Russia is looking to launch a nuclear armed weapon, person. And, this is specifically a weapon designed to harm other satellites through an electromagnetic pulse. So according to leaked intelligence, they are looking to launch into space a satellite with one or more nuclear weapons that are not going to be aimed at other satellites, but rather are going to be detonated in the vicinity of the satellites they wish to disable. And this is actually, in many ways, significantly more dangerous than just blowing up a satellite. Because you blow up one satellite, you get one debris cloud by detonating a nuclear weapon in space. We we sadly learned in the 70s by trying to fly airplanes into, nuclear weapons tests that, they give off electromagnetic pulses that completely disrupt electronics. And if you’re not prepared, I think of the movie matrix. You are. System gets fried. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:29] The so and so. What is the underlying process here that’s happening. So so I mean you that you the nuclear bomb goes off inside the satellite. It it destroys the satellite. So you get the debris out. I mean, maybe it’s vaporized, but you get a debris cloud and all of the satellites in some vicinity, it can offline and. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:52] All all electronics. So. So what what is happening during a nuclear blast is I you have rapid nuclear processes going on which generate a whole lot of charged particles. When you have moving charged particles, this generates electric fields and magnetic fields. These in turn, when they go past wires, when they go past, electronics will generate a surge in current and fry your electronics to kingdom come. So what you’re looking at is an uncontrolled surge in electricity through a system by powering things down ahead of time. The hope is, as we see in the movie matrix, which I’m just going to keep bringing up because it’s the best example of amps in media that I can think of. When you power things down ahead of time, which is actually what we do in cases of solar flares, in some instances, you’re removing any, charge that would already be there. And so the threshold for melting your electronics gets lowered by the amount of charge you have removed from the system. Things are also harder to blast apart when they’re not turned on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Power something down all the way and generate more current than is safe. You’re still going to fry it? It just you’ve you’ve lowered the the, preexisting danger. But you can still try things. 

Fraser Cain [00:09:29] Like if the machine know that in theory, it’s running at the safe tolerances for the tricity in a non near nuclear bomb environment. And then you, you have the pulse creates highly charged particles. Particles go through the electronics, they deliver additional charge overload circuits and causes them to crack. You turn the thing off, you still overload circuits because you’re just creating brand new, you know, electrical electricity going through the circuit. It’s just hopefully less damaging because you’re not also running your normal thing. But but the problem with that I have the matrix is that there wasn’t a nuclear bomb part. Like I think there’s this, misnomer or whatever confusion. People’s minds are like, oh, could you make an impulse, an EMP bomb? Well, the way you do that is you set up a clear weapon, like there’s there’s no EMP pulse without the bomb. 

Pamela Gay [00:10:30] The the MacGuffin in the matrix was their ability to generate massive emps. Yeah. Without having the. I mean, you can create emps without nuclear bombs. They’re just not this powerful. 

Fraser Cain [00:10:46] Right? Right. It’s the charged particles. It’s the release of charged particles. Yeah. The sphere that goes out in all directions impacts every piece of electronics delivering this, this elec charge. And so, yeah. So people, you know, people always ask me this question like, you know what we at risk, you know, can people make EMP bombs like like you’ve already got the risk of the nuclear. What. There’s no safe EMP bomb there. Yeah. For weapons. So just keep that in mind. When you’re writing your science fiction story and and the protagonist set off an EMP bombed. Stop the. I don’t know if I they also set up a nuclear weapon. I hope they reach minimum safe distance. Okay. So, so that is that is the threat. That is what has gotten everybody worked up right now. We’re gonna talk about this some more, but it’s time for another break. 

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Fraser Cain [00:13:16] And we’re back. All right. So that is the thread. So let’s put it into historical content text. How do we how did we learn this. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:31] So so I’ve actually, talked to some of the people that were involved in some of the tests that accidentally discovered this, back in the 60s. I said 70s earlier. It was in the 60s, rather, they were running tests. They were flying the bombers that had just dropped the bomb right back in over the explosion while the shockwave was going away. And when the electromagnetic pulse hit the electronics of the aircraft, the aircraft ceased to function. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:11] Thanks. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:11] Yeah. And and part of the problem was, from the conversations that I had. They had compartmentalized the mission, so they had the people that were working on the control systems, the people that were working on the weapons, and there were people involved who were at junior levels, baby engineers who could have said, yeah, you put this through the nuclear blast and the MP is going to destroy our aircraft. But because of how they had compartmentalized the mission, lives were lost in the name of national security and the ignorance of the decision makers. This this is the reality of how this works. So in the six, in the 60s, all these different tests took place. They were blowing things up on it, holes or blowing things up under deserts. And they also did a series of missions called Operation Fishbowl, where four different weapons were exploded. One of the most spectacularly imaged was, project Start was, sorry, it was, the starfish test. It was one of five. Sorry. There was starfish. And then four additional, starfish was, over 250 miles up, so well above the Karman line, completely in outer space. And you could see how the blast affected the atmosphere even at that altitude. From as far away as Hawaii. That was basically only able to see this over the horizon because of the altitude that it took, was, wasn’t. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:55] And they. And so they just said like after disastrously learning that. A nuclear weapon will destroy or, you know, shut down all the electronic on your aircraft. 

Pamela Gay [00:16:10] And do bad things to your atmosphere and flood areas with radiation that will, of course, travel the world. There were all sorts of reasons that went into this. 

Fraser Cain [00:16:19] And then said, how can we use this as a weapon? And testing a series of weapons way above the atmosphere? So these these aren’t going to be blowing up in the atmosphere. They’re they’re going to be just detonating in space. And what did they discover from doing this work. 

Pamela Gay [00:16:41] So so when you pump energy into the atmosphere, it expands out. You have the electromagnetic pulses that travel that can cause danger. You have now high altitude radiation. So it’s going to get distributed entirely around the planet, raining down everywhere, essentially. So if you remember back in 2010, when there was that Icelandic volcano that took out air traffic, the reason that particular volcanic blast took out so much air traffic was because the ash was blasted to such a high altitude. When you have ground level explosions, you will take out an entire region of the desert. You have to worry about fallout, downwind. This actually caused a John Wayne movie’s cast to have massive amounts of cancer. And ultimately, John Wayne’s death is blamed on nuclear testing. But when you do this in the atmosphere, it’s actually to the point that scientists wanting to do very detailed, atomic experiments, not nuclear weapons, atomic, but like studying atoms and stuff. Atomic experiments, they have to find steel that was forged prior to the nuclear tests because, like micro-plastics, radioactive materials permeate absolutely everything in our environment. And it is not possible to create steel without these nuclear pollutants in your equipment. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:22] Yeah, I’ve heard this, that they they have to find old steel from pre nuclear weapons tests and then use that for making. 

Pamela Gay [00:18:32] Everything. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:33] You know lab equipment things that have to be in have be giving off absolutely no radiation. Yeah. Because every piece of steel is made after that is giving off radiation. Yeah. Now the Americans did protests. Obviously. The Soviet Union leaned back, said, that’s a terrible idea. We’re not going to do that. 

Pamela Gay [00:18:51] No, they did the same things. And in the years since we’ve seen, underground testing from all sorts of different nations, India, North Korea, Israel, South Africa, yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:09] Well, I think it was only the Americans and the Soviets that actually tested this stuff in space. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:12] It’s true. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:13] And and the part that’s kind of amazing is you look at the that the year we tested it and it’s like 1958 to 1962. Yeah. And they stopped in 1962. And nobody has tested in nuclear weapons in space since then. All right. So we have this hard cut off. We have all of these tests. And then in 92 it ends. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:37] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:38] Why did it end? 

Pamela Gay [00:19:40] So in 1963, we had a treaty that it’s easy to mess if you’re focused on looking at space stuff. And that’s the partial nuclear, test ban treaty, which was basically like, let’s stop destroying the atmosphere. And so let’s not test nuclear weapons in space. Let’s not test them above ground. This is where we ended up with those wonderful gamma ray detecting satellites getting launched that detected gamma ray bursts. Those were actually launched in order to try and monitor for the potential of this test ban treaty getting broken. And then five years later, we had. And and this this is just like an amazing piece of legislation for the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, was ratified by 110 nations and signed by an additional 89 that just haven’t fully ratified them, because herding congresses is difficult. But but that’s like more of the planet than the you can get to agree to almost anything. And the core of the Outer Space Treaty is space is for everyone. Don’t put weapons there. Do not put weapons on other celestial bodies. And. And so the concern is we are now looking at a major nation potentially breaking the the Outer Space Treaty as well as the test ban treaties. And I’d like. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:15] To be really clear here. Right. The the outer Space treaty, the test, the nuclear test ban treaty, how you don’t test nuclear weapons and you don’t. 

Pamela Gay [00:21:26] Have weapons in general. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:27] Space. Yeah, you don’t put nuclear weapons in space. And and the you know, the risk was you can imagine you would have a bomb on a satellite and the satellite would be flying overhead. And then you could decide to just drop, you could detonated, weigh in and take out the electronic infrastructure of, of an indication you could drop the weapon. And instead of you having to wait 40 minutes for it to cross continents to launch from your home territory, it drops in minutes. And so there’s no there’s no delay until everyone realized, I mean, that this, you know, they didn’t go up to going, maybe we shouldn’t have nuclear weapons at all. They still thought that was fine, but they realized that this is a bridge too far. Yes. And so you got the the the bad end, and you’re saying like this is a potential violation of the outer space in any if Russia does put nuclear weapons onto satellites and puts them into space, then this is a complete and total violation of of the peace treaty. You are not allowed to do. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:30] Yeah. And and once you start breaking it, where do you stop? Because the Outer Space Treaty is all weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons, chemical weapons. And we’re already seeing Russia breaking many, many international agreements by using, banned weapons in the Ukraine. Could we? 

Fraser Cain [00:22:51] So. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:53] We need to take this seriously because clearly, treaties no longer matter. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:59] Right? Right. And I mean, when we think about the Outer Space Treaty, there’s a lot of that is being done for researching fusion reactors in space. The Russians launched almost two dozen fusion reactors in the past. One of them, as I always bring up crashing to Canada. They launched one. Even now, NASA is planning on launching a vision rocket to test that out next couple of years with DARPA. You’ve got. Now, simply put, any fission reactor on the surface of the moon. A violation outer space treaty. Why? Why? 

Pamela Gay [00:23:36] Technically so. So this is where. And this has been debated since the 80s. Where do you draw the line between putting together a nuclear power source that is capable of delivering, high energy capacity to satellites, enabling things that can be used for good or for evil, versus putting something into space that only has one purpose, and that is to go boom. And and so the concern is, yes, we have multiple nations that have been considering how do we get high power radars in space, for instance, radar is an extremely energy intensive technology. We’re doing cool stuff with lidar from space. We’re doing cool stuff with lidar and radar from aircraft. But high power radar isn’t something that we have. Easy access to an orbit because we just don’t have the power sources. And so once you start looking at high power anything and it’s not just radar, that’s just the easy thing to point to. You can’t just be using solar panels and radio. Thermal generators require very specific sources that we don’t have in large numbers. And. And and and so okay. 

Fraser Cain [00:25:04] Right. So these two there’s probably going to be carve outs if various nations want to move forward on these kinds of technologies. 

Pamela Gay [00:25:12] And nations like to break the rules. So we had the Outer Space Treaty saying you can’t put weapons in space. But that didn’t stop Russia, India, China or us here in the United States from blowing up our own rockets to demonstrate we can. And so back. 

Fraser Cain [00:25:31] Then. But that’s a totally different thing, right? That’s not just weaponry. And there isn’t a clear back on that because it’s not like it’s funny when you read the Outer space. Yeah. You really get a sense what they were freaked out about. And it’s really all about nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons, nuclear. You can’t put them on the moon. You can’t put them in orbit. You can’t know can’t put them here. You can’t put them there. You can’t put them anywhere. Right? And for good reason. Like, I get why they were. Why they were so concerned about the potential. They were all freaked out about these weapons that were pointed at each other. They were imagining the consequences of a global thermonuclear war and and that. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:15] But back. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:16] In far, yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:18] In the 60s, the idea of cellular technology was an idea, but it wasn’t a reality in every single person’s pocket. 911 wasn’t starting to get tied to satellites. We didn’t have Starlink, we didn’t have G.P.S., and we didn’t have the same fear of the Kessler syndrome we have today. If you have less than 100 satellites in orbit, you blow one up and you have a whole bunch of tiny stars. But those other 99 satellites are probably going to be able to miss it. The real concern with this particular weapon is you take something capable of giving off an EMP. You put it in a particularly swarming part of low Earth orbit at just the right moment, where there are orbits. The Molinas are one of my favorites to attempt to pronounce where you have things flying through low-Earth orbit that do communications on the extremes of their highly elliptical orbits. So you blow something up at just just the right moment in low-Earth orbit. You’re going to catch things that pass through all the orbital, altitudes, spread debris over vast swaths because you have things going around that stay at low-Earth orbit. You have things that are elliptical, that go through high Earth orbit, and you put off the MP there. Now all of those things are dead. You have completely dead missions that no one can steer now. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:57] And it’s like, I don’t think people realize the, the how far are these things? Yeah. When they did one of these tests, that one that you talked about, the one that was visible from Hawaii. Yeah, yeah. So it damaged electronics in Hawaii about 1300 kilometers away from the explosion. It destroyed 300 streetlights in Oahu, set off burglar alarms, caused the failure of a wave repeating station in Kauai. So? So you’ve got. Like. It’s absolutely will kill a satellite within 80km, but you will likely cause damage to every to many pieces of electronics within 1000km of range, which is a big swath of the sky you’re going to take out. Now you’re going to take out hundreds, if not potentially thousands of satellites. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:57] Yeah. And and it will only give you one range of, of satellites. You’re not going to get both Leo and Geo in one blast. But. You can get all of Leo in one blast and anything passing through it. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:22] Yeah. So that. Yeah. Don’t do it. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:27] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:28] Stick to the tree. It’s there for a reason. Hopefully we won’t have to revisit this topic. There are no weapons in space. They’re not permitted any weapons in space. This is it. This is. And. And then. And no discussion. Yeah I hope. Treaty is very clear. Again, read the Outer Space Treaty and you will see the. The existing crisis that the people who signed this deal were. I think yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:03] The the Atlantic Council has some really good reports coming out. They are a think tank. Nonpartizan. If you want to read more about what’s going on and why we need to be concerned, the Atlantic Council documents will prevent you from potentially sleeping tonight. So, hey, if you have work to do in the middle of the night, I highly recommend reading this. 

Fraser Cain [00:30:28] It sounds. It sounds terrible. All right, well. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:31] Thank you, Fraser, and thank you to everyone out there who allows us to torture, Rich, Ali and Beth by, giving them things like this to edit, to post, to promote. And if you want to make their jobs, their jobs a little bit easier, leave us a review that makes the algorithms happy and helps people find us. And if you want to make me able to pay them to have their life that you have potentially made easier. Patreon.com slash astronomy cast this week, I would like to thank Wanderer M 101 me fail English. That’s impossible. William Andrews, gold, Jeff Collins, Simon Parton, Jeremy Kerwin, Kellyanne and David Parker, Harold Bergen, Hagan, Claudia mastroianni, Alex Cohen. Conception filling and co m 1961 super symmetrical Matt Rucker, Mark Steven Rusnak and Esau share some, Abraham Cottrell, Andrew Stevenson, Alex Rain, Paul L Hayden, Steven Coffee, the lonely stand person Part, Bart Flaherty, Benjamin Carrier, Gregory. Singleton, Daniel Loosely, Jim Schooler, Tim McMeekin, Kenneth Ryan, Michael Regan, Scott Briggs, and, not every patron gets the potential to have me mispronounce their names, so read the details to see at what level you need to join. That’s a special. 

Fraser Cain [00:32:06] Benefit. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:07] Yeah, it is, it is. So thank you so much. 

Fraser Cain [00:32:10] Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:32:12] Bye bye. Astronomy cast is a joint product of the Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it. But please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

Show Notes

The Outer Space Treaty at a Glance (Arms Control Association)

Fact Sheet: Space Weapons – Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (Arms Control Center)

Space weapon (Wikipedia entry)

Starfish Prime (Wikipedia entry)

U.S. officials say Russia has deployed a nuclear weapon in space (Washington Post) (Paywall)

House Intel chair’s national security warning is about Russia’s space power (Politico)

Russia developing ‘troubling’ new anti-satellite weapon, US says (BBC)

Russia’s nuclear space weapon a risk for all, says German Space Command chief (Politico)

Kremlin dismisses US warning about Russian nuclear capability in space (Reuters)

Russian nuclear anti-satellite weapons would require a firm US response, not hysteria (Atlantic Council)

From Russia with nukes? Sifting facts from speculation about space weapon threat (Breaking Defense)

Analysis: What are the potential geopolitical implications of Russia’s purported space weapon? (PBS NewsHour)

New details emerge on potential Russian nuclear space weapon (CNN)

Exclusive: Russia attempting to develop nuclear space weapon to destroy satellites with massive energy wave, sources familiar with intel say (CNN Politics)