Taking Out the Space Trash: Creating an Advanced Market Commitment for Recycling and Removing Large-Scale Space Debris


In the coming decades, the United States’ space industry stands to grow into one of the country’s most significant civil, defense, and commercial infrastructure providers. However, this nearly $500 billion market is threatened by a growing problem: space trash. Nonoperational satellites and other large-scale debris items have accumulated in space for decades as a kind of celestial junkyard, posing a serious security risk to future business endeavors. When companies launch new satellites needed for GPS, internet services, and military operations into Earth’s lower orbit, they risk colliding with dead equipment in the ever-crowding atmosphere. While the last major satellite collision was over a decade ago, it is only a matter of time until the next occurs. As space traffic density increases, scientists project that collisions (and loss of satellite-based services as a result) will become progressively problematic and frequent. 

Due to the speed of innovation within the space industry, the rate of space commercialization is outpacing the federal government’s regulatory paradigms. Therefore, the U.S. government should give businesses the means to resolve the space debris problem directly. To do so, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Space Force, and the Department of Commerce (DOC) should create an advanced market commitment for recycling and de-orbiting satellites and large-sized debris. By incentivizing businesses with financial stimulus, novel regulation, and sustained market ecosystems, the federal government can mitigate the space debris problem in a way that also bolsters national economic growth.

Challenge and Opportunity

The sustainability and security of Earth’s outer orbit and the future success of launch missions depend on the removal of sixty years’ worth of accumulated space debris. The space debris population in the lower-Earth orbit (LEO) region has reached the point where the environment is considered unstable. Over 8,000 metric tons of dead, human-deposited objects orbit the planet, including over 13,000 defunct satellites. While this accumulated trash is the product of numerous countries’ space activities, the United States is an undeniably large contributor to the problem. Approximately 30% of orbiting, functional satellites belong to the United States. As such, we as a nation have a responsibility to tackle the space debris challenge head-on. 

Space is becoming littered with dead satellites, and the United States is a major contributor. Over 19,000 satellites have been launched between 1950 and 2020 and currently orbit the Earth (Tile A). The red dots in Tile B above represent the satellites, both dead and active, owned and launched by the United States. Nearly 70% of all satellites in orbit are classified as “junk” (Tile C). The United States is one of the largest contributors of satellite refuse, second only to Russia (4,138 satellites vs. 4,714; Tile D). (Source: Generated using ESRI satellite data)

Our nation’s responsibility is especially acute since rapid growth in the American commercial space sector is likely to further exacerbate the space debris problem. New technology advancements mean that it is cheaper than ever to manufacture and launch new satellites. Additionally, recent improvements in rocket engineering and design provide more economical options for getting payloads into space. This changing cost environment means that the space industry is no longer monopolized by a select number of large, multinational companies. Instead, smaller businesses now face fewer barriers-to-entry for satellite deployment and have an equal opportunity to compete in the market. However, since space debris management is not yet fully regulated, this increased commercial activity means that more industries may be littering LEO in the near future.

America’s mounting demand for satellite-based services will congest LEO’s already crowded environment even further. The U.S. defense sector in particular requires further space resources due to their reliance on sophisticated communication and image-capturing capabilities. As a result, the Department of Defense (DOD) has started recruiting space industries to provide these services through increased satellite deployment in LEO. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted consumer demand for satellite-based internet. In response, space industries are racing to extend broadband access to rural areas and remote populations, an effort which the Biden Administration hopes to support through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. Overall, this combined demand for commercial satellite services from the American public and federal government means that more launches will occur in the years ahead and add to the ongoing debris issue.

The worsening congestion in outer space is a severe nuisance for America’s space industry. Floating trash in LEO creates an immediate physical barrier to commercial space activity. Rocket launches and payload delivery must first chart a safe flight that avoids collision with pre-orbiting objects, which, given the growing congestion in LEO, will only become more difficult in the future.

The space debris issue is also a serious security risk that may one day end in disaster. If space traffic becomes too dense, a single collision between two large objects could produce a cloud of thousands of small-scale debris. These fragments could, in turn, act as lethal missiles that hit other objects in orbit, thereby causing even more collisional debris. This cascade of destruction, known as the Kessler Syndrome, ultimately results in a scenario where LEO is saturated with uncontrollable projectiles that render further space launch, exploration, and development impossible. The financial, industrial, and societal consequences of this situation would be devastating. 

Space debris, especially debris resulting from collisions, is projected to grow significantly in the years ahead. Lines in this figure represent the number of trackable low-Earth orbit (LEO) objects (based on a NASA-based mathematical simulation). The blue line represents rocket bodies, spacecrafts, and other launch-related refuse that have not experienced breakups. The brown line represents debris resulting from explosions, which are caused by internal malfunctions of a given piece of equipment. The pink line represents debris resulting from two or more objects colliding with one another in orbit. (Source: Science Magazine)

If outer space is to remain a viable environment for development and industry, the space debris problem must be solved. NASA and other space agencies have shown that at least five to ten of the most massive debris objects must be removed each year to prevent space debris accumulation from getting out of hand. Orbital decay from atmospheric drag, the only natural space clean-up process, is insufficient for removing large-sized debris. In fact, orbital decay could compound problems posed by massive debris objects as surface erosion may cause wakes of smaller debris cast-offs. Therefore, cleanup and removal of massive debris objects must be done manually. 

According to the National Space Policy, the U.S. government can “develop governmental space systems only when it is in the national interest and there is no suitable, cost-effective U.S. commercial or, as appropriate, foreign commercial service or system that is or will be available.” As such, any future U.S. space cleanup program must actively involve the space industry sector to be successful. Such a program must create an environment where space debris removal is a competitive economic opportunity rather than an obligation. 

Presently, an industrial sector focused on space debris removal and recycling—including on-site satellite servicing, in-orbit equipment repair and satellite life extensions, satellite end-of-life services, and active debris removal—remains nascent at best. However, the potential and importance of this sector is becoming increasingly evident. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program seeks to cheaply recycle still-functioning pieces of defunct satellites and incorporate them into new space systems. Northrop Grumman, an American multinational aerospace and defense-technology company, as well as a number of other small and medium-sized U.S. businesses, have ongoing projects to build in-orbit recycling systems to reduce the costs and risks of new satellite launches. However, federal intervention is needed to rapidly stimulate further growth in this sector and to address the following challenges:

Plan of Action

To address the aforementioned challenges, multiple offices within the federal government will need to coordinate and support the American space industry. Specifically, they will need to create an advanced market commitment for space debris removal and recycling, using financial incentives and new regulatory mechanisms to support this emerging market. To achieve this goal, we recommend the following five policy steps:

Recommendation 1. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should collaborate to provide U.S. space industries with a standard means of identifying which satellites are viable for recycling once they have reached the end of their life cycle.

One reason why the satellite and large debris object recycling and removal industry remains small is because the market is small. The market can be grown by creating a verified system for satellite providers and operators to indicate that their equipment can be recycled or decommissioned by secondary service providers once a mission is completed. To encourage widespread use of this elective registration system, it will need to be incentivized and incorporated into ongoing satellite and rocket regulatory schemes.

Because federal authority over space activity has evolved over time, multiple federal agencies currently regulate the commercial space industry. The FCC licenses commercial satellite communications, the FAA licenses commercial launch and reentry vehicles (i.e., rockets and spaceplanes) as well as commercial spaceports, and NOAA licenses commercial Earth remote-sensing satellites. These agencies must collaborate to develop a standard and centralized registration system that promotes satellite recycling.

Industries will need incentives for opting into this registration system and for marking their equipment as recyclable and decommission-viable. With respect to the former, the recycling registration mechanism should be incorporated into federal pre-launch or pre-licensing protocols. With respect to the latter, the FCC, the FAA, and NOAA could:

Recommendation 2. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO), in coordination with the DOD’s Space Surveillance Network, should create a prioritized list of massive space debris items in LEO for expedited cleanup.

Rocket bodies, nonfunctioning satellites, and other large debris represent the highest percentage of overall orbital debris mass in LEO. Since these objects pose the highest risks of additional debris generation through collisions and decay, reducing their stay in LEO is a priority. However, given the continuous generation of space debris and sometimes uncertain or tenuous ownership of older debris items, the federal government needs to create a public and regularly updated “large-debris criticality” index. This index would give large debris items a risk-assessment score based on (i) their ability to generate additional debris through erosion or collision, (ii) the feasibility of their removal, (iii) their ownership status, and (iv) other risk factors. Objects that were put into orbit before NASA ODPO issued its standard debris mitigation guidelines need to be assessed retroactively.

By creating and regularly updating this public index, the federal government would make it easier for public and private actors alike to identify which debris items need to be prioritized for cleanup, what risks are involved, and what technology may be required for successful removal.

Recommendation 3. The Space Force, in collaboration with the Department of Commerce (DOC), should fund removal and/or recycling of a set number of large debris objects each year, thereby creating a reliable market for space debris removal.

By committing to fully or partially fund the NASA-recommended removal of five to ten large debris items each year, the Space Force and the DOC would lower the risk of business entry into the orbital debris removal market and create a sustained market economy for space debris mitigation. The specific monetary reward offered by these agencies for debris removal could be commensurate with the nature and size of the debris item, the speed of removal, and the manner of removal. An additional payout could be offered for the removal of a high-priority large debris item (e.g., an item identified in Recommendation 2 above), or for debris removal that is done sustainably (e.g., in ways that recycle or reuse parts and do not generate secondary, smaller debris).

Recommendation 4. The Space Force – Space Systems Command should coordinate with NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program to issue a satellite design-based grand challenge aimed at facilitating future satellite recycling efforts.

Grand challenges are popular and often effective tools for stimulating public interest in a given issue and advancing technologies. However, they can fall short of creating a sustainable, long-lasting commercial industry. The Space Force and NASA can overcome this difficulty by designing a grand challenge wherein: (i) research and development costs are shared among private and public participants; (ii) multiple winners are selected at the end of the challenge; (iii) winners are chosen based on whether they meet government capability thresholds in addition to being commercially viable; and (iv) challenge winners are guaranteed a long-term government service contract.

For this grand challenge, Space Force and NASA should encourage the creation and, afterwards, widespread commercial use of satellite design strategies that facilitate satellite recycling, mission extension, or deconstruction. Specifically, the design challenge should focus on:

Recommendation 5. NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce, in conjunction with the Space Force and NASA’s ODPO, should jointly issue an annual research report outlining risk, cost-benefit analyses, and the economics of orbital debris removal and recycling. 

For the growing number of debris recycling and satellite maintenance industries, large orbital debris represent a potential source of valuable materials and resources. While it is theorized that repurposing or salvaging these large debris objects may be more cost effective than de-orbiting them, exact costs and benefits are often unspecified. Additionally, the financial repercussions of accumulating space debris and collisions are largely unknown. 

If industries know the upfront expenses and potential profit of space debris removal, the debris removal market will be far less risky and more lucrative. NASA, NOAA, and the Space Force can fill that information gap by collaboratively creating better tools to assess both the risk and costs posed by orbital debris to future uses of space, including commercial development and investment. 


For America’s space industry to grow to its full potential, end-of-life satellites and other orbiting dead equipment need to be cleared from Earth’s lower orbit. Without removing these items, the increasing possibility of a severe in-orbit collision poses a major security risk to civilian, military, and commercial infrastructure providers. By creating an advanced market commitment for recycling and de-orbiting large-sized debris items, the federal government does more than just address the growing space debris problem. It also creates a new market for the U.S. space industry and stimulates further economic growth for the country. Additionally, it encourages greater public-private collaboration as well as consistent communication between crucial offices within the U.S. government.

Frequently Asked Questions
Outer space is governed by international law. Why can’t the United Nations (UN) or other international space agencies handle the space debris issue? Why should the U.S. government act?

Global space governance is very complicated since no single country has a right to this territory. As such, space activity is broadly guided by UN treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979. While these treaties establish important guidelines for the peaceful use of space, they fail to address important present-day concerns, such as governing space debris and private industry activity. Thus, these treaties are not fully able to guide modern challenges in space commercialization. It is also important to note that it took nearly ten years for diplomats to reach an agreement and ratify these treaties. Therefore, the timeline needed to either revisit outer space treaties or craft new ones is too slow to fully match the breakneck speed at which space activity is developing today. Given the U.S. space industry’s influential role in shaping behaviors and norms in outer space, addressing the space debris problem effectively will require the U.S. space industry sector’s involvement.

What is at stake—how much is the U.S. space industry worth?

In 2018, the FAA estimated the value of the U.S. space industry at approximately $158 billion. Since then, the space economy has continued to grow, largely due to a record period of private investment and new investor opportunities in spaceflight, satellite, and other space-related companies. As a result, the space industry was valued at $424 billion in 2019. By 2030, it is believed that the space industry will be one of the most valuable sectors of the U.S. economy, with a projected value of between $1.5 and $3 trillion.

Why is the American space industry growing so quickly?

It all has to do with cost. Mounting competition among private space companies means it is cheaper than ever to launch equipment into space, which creates numerous opportunities for businesses to meet the ever-increasing need for alternative supply chain routes and satellite-based internet connectivity.

From 1970–2000, the cost of launching a kilogram of material into space remained fairly steady and was determined primarily by NASA. When NASA’s space shuttle fleet was in operation, it could launch a payload of 27,500 kilograms for $1.5 billion($54,500 per kilogram). Today, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket advertises a cost of just $62 million to launch 22,800 kilograms ($2,720 per kilogram). In other words, commercial launch has reduced the cost of getting a satellite into LEO by a factor of 20. Additional developments in reusable rocket technology may decrease that cost to just $5 million in the future. Improvements in satellite technology and mass production will further cut costs and make more launches possible. It is projected that satellite mass production techniques could decrease launch cost from $500 million per satellite to $500,000.

Decreasing costs lead to increasing rocket and satellite launch rates and, hence, to increasing accumulation of space debris.

If two pieces of space junk are going to collide, can’t you just make them move?

If the satellites in question are active, fully functioning, and capable of maneuvering, then to an extent—yes. Satellites can be remotely programmed to change course and avoid a collision. Even under these circumstances, though, these objects adhere to the laws of physics; it can take a lot of energy to alter their orbit to avoid a crash. As such, most satellite operators require hours or days to plan and execute a collision avoidance maneuver.

Not all active equipment is capable of maneuvering, though; there is no way to control objects that are inactive or dead. So, orbiting debris are uncontrollable.

Is there air traffic control in outer space?

To date, there is no official or internationally recognized “Space Traffic Control” agency. Within the U.S., responsibility for space traffic surveillance is shared among numerous government agencies and even some companies.

Why is recycling and decommissioning in-orbit satellites so difficult?

Satellites and rockets are not designed for disposal; they’re designed to withstand the tremendous aerodynamic forces, heat, drag, etc. experienced when exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore, many satellites are built with reinforcements to maintain orbit and withstand minor collisions with space debris. Hence, breaking down, recycling, and fixing satellites in space is currently very challenging.

Why does this memo focus on LEO? Isn’t space debris a problem at other orbits and distances too?

LEO is defined as the area close to Earth’s surface (between 160 and 1,000 km). This territory is especially viable for satellites for several reasons. First, the close distance to Earth means that it takes less fuel to station satellites in orbit, making LEO one of the cheapest options for space industries. Second, LEO satellites do not always have to follow a strict path around Earth’s equator; they can instead follow tilted and angled orbital paths. This means there are more available flight routes for satellites in LEO, making it an attractive territory for space industries. As a result, most satellites and, by consequence, the majority of satellite junk is located in LEO. (See first image in Challenge and Opportunity of littered satellites).

8. Why focus on large space debris, like defunct satellites and rocket cast-offs? What about smaller debris?

Smaller debris do outnumber larger debris in outer space. According to NASA, there are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble (up to 0.4 inches, or 1 centimeter), and approximately 100 million pieces of debris that are about .04 inches (or 1 millimeter) and larger. Micrometer-sized (0.000039 of an inch in diameter) debris are even more abundant. These small-sized space debris may be traveling upwards of 17,500 mph, meaning they can do massive amounts of damage during collisions.

Clearly (see image below), small debris are also a significant security risk and should be included in space debris cleanup considerations. However, an inability to track small-scale debris orbits, the specific challenges in “catching” these small, high velocity objects, and a significant lack of reliable information on small-sized space debris means that this aspect of space debris mitigation will likely require its own unique policy actions.

We presently have more data on large-sized debris, and these items pose the greatest threat to ongoing space efforts, should they collide. Therefore, this memo focuses on policy actions targeting these debris items first.

Mixed Messages On Trump’s Missile Defense Review

President Trump personally released the long-overdue Missile Defense Review (MDR) today, and despite the document’s assertion that “Missile Defenses are Stabilizing,” the MDR promotes a posture that is anything but.

Firstly, during his presentation, Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan falsely asserted that the MDR is consistent with the priorities of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS’ missile defense section notes that “Enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.” (p.8) During Shanahan’s and President Trump’s speeches, however, they made it clear that the United States will seek to detect and destroy “any type of target,” “anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” either “before or after launch.” Coupled with numerous references to Russia’s and China’s evolving missile arsenals and advancements in hypersonic technology, this kind of rhetoric is wholly inconsistent with the MDR’s description of missile defense being directed solely against “rogue states.” It is also inconsistent with the more measured language of the National Security Strategy.

Secondly, the MDR clearly states that the United States “will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities needed to protect the homeland against rogue missile threats.” This is precisely what concerns Russia and China, who fear a future in which unconstrained and technologically advanced US missile defenses will eventually be capable of disrupting their strategic retaliatory capability and could be used to support an offensive war-fighting posture.

Thirdly, in a move that will only exacerbate these fears, the MDR commits the Missile Defense Agency to test the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM-class target in 2020. The 2018 NDAA had previously mandated that such a test only take place “if technologically feasible;” it now seems that there is sufficient confidence for the test to take place. However, it is notable that the decision to conduct such a test seems to hinge upon technological capacity and not the changes to the security environment, despite the constraints that Iran (which the SM-3 is supposedly designed to counter) has accepted upon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Fourthly, the MDR indicates that the United States will look into developing and fielding a variety of new capabilities for detecting and intercepting missiles either immediately before or after launch, including:

There exists much hype around the concept of boost-phase intercept—shooting down an adversary missile immediately after launch—because of the missile’s relatively slower velocity and lack of deployable countermeasures at that early stage of the flight. However, an attempt at boost-phase intercept would essentially require advance notice of a missile launch in order to position US interceptors within striking distance. The layer of space-based sensors is presumably intended to alleviate this concern; however, as Laura Grego notes, these sensors would be “easily overwhelmed, easily attacked, and enormously expensive.”

Additionally, boost-phase intercept would require US interceptors to be placed in very close proximity to the target––almost certainly revealing itself to an adversary’s radar network. The interceptor itself would also have to be fast enough to chase down an accelerating missile, which is technologically improbable, even years down the line. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report puts it very plainly: “Boost-phase missile defense—whether kinetic or directed energy, and whether based on land, sea, air, or in space—is not practical or feasible.” 

Overall, the Trump Administration’s Missile Defense Review offers up a gamut of expensive, ineffective, and destabilizing solutions to problems that missile defense simply cannot solve. The scope of US missile defense should be limited to dealing with errant threats—such as an accidental or limited missile launch—and should not be intended to support a broader war-fighting posture. To that end, the MDR’s argument that “the United States will not accept any limitation or constraint” on its missile defense capabilities will only serve to raise tensions, further stimulate adversarial efforts to outmaneuver or outpace missile defenses, and undermine strategic stability.

During the upcoming spring hearings, Congress will have an important role to play in determining which capabilities are actually necessary in order to enforce a limited missile defense posture, and which ones are superfluous. And for those superfluous capabilities, there should be very strong pushback.

An X reveals a Diamond: locating Israeli Patriot batteries using radar interference

Amid a busy few weeks of nuclear-related news, an Israeli researcher made a very surprising OSINT discovery that flew somewhat under the radar. As explained in a Medium article, Israeli GIS analyst Harel Dan noticed that when he accidentally adjusted the noise levels of the imagery produced from the SENTINEL-1 satellite constellation, a bunch of colored Xs suddenly appeared all over the globe.

SENTINEL-1’s C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) operates at a centre frequency of 5.405 GHz, which conveniently sits within the range of the military frequency used for land, airborne, and naval radar systems (5.250-5.850 GHz)—including the AN/MPQ-53/65 phased array radars that form the backbone of a Patriot battery’s command and control system. Therefore, Harel correctly hypothesized that some of the Xs that appeared in the SENTINEL-1 images could be triggered by interference from Patriot radar systems.

Using this logic, he was able to use the Xs to pinpoint the locations of Patriot batteries in several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Harel’s blog post also noted that several Xs appeared within Israeli territory; however, the corresponding image was redacted (I’ll leave you to guess why), leaving a gap in his survey of Patriot batteries stationed in the Middle East.

This blog post partially fills that gap, while acknowledging that there are some known Patriot sites—both in Israel and elsewhere around the globe—that interestingly don’t produce an X via the SAR imagery.

All of these sites were already known to Israel-watchers and many have appeared in news articles, making Harel’s redaction somewhat unnecessary—especially since the images reveal nothing about operational status or system capabilities.

Looking at the map of Israel through the SENTINEL-1 SAR images, four Xs are clearly visible: one in the Upper Galilee, one in Haifa, one near Tel Aviv, and one in the Negev. All of these Xs correspond to likely Patriot battery sites, which are known in Israel as “Yahalom” (יהלום, meaning “Diamond”) batteries. Let’s go from north to south.

The northernmost site is home to the 138th Battalion’s Yahalom battery at Birya, which made news in July 2018 for successfully intercepting a Syrian Su-24 jet which had reportedly infiltrated two kilometers into Israeli airspace before being shot down. Earlier that month, the Birya battery also successfully intercepted a Syrian UAV which had flown 10 kilometers into Israeli airspace.

The Yahalom battery in the northwest is based on one of the ridges of Mount Carmel, near Haifa’s Stella Maris Monastery. It is located only 50 meters from a residential neighborhood, which has understandably triggered some resentment from nearby residents who have complained that too much ammunition is stored there and that the air sirens are too loud.

The X in the west indicates the location of a Yahalom site at Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, where Israel conducts its missile and satellite launches. In March 2016, the Israeli Air Force launched interceptors as part of a pre-planned missile defense drill, and while the government refused to divulge the location of the battery, an Israeli TV channel reported that the drill was conducted using Patriot missiles fired from Palmachim air base.

Finally, the X in the southeast sits right on top of the Negev Nuclear Research Centre, more commonly known as Dimona. This is the primary facility relating to Israel’s nuclear weapons program and is responsible for plutonium and tritium production. The site is known to be heavily fortified; during the Six Day War, an Israeli fighter jet that had accidentally flown into Dimona’s airspace was shot down by Israeli air defenses and the pilot was killed.

The proximity of the Negev air defense battery to an Israeli nuclear facility is not unique. In fact, the 2002 SIPRI Yearbook suggests that several of the Yahalom batteries identified through SENTINEL-1 SAR imagery are either co-located with or located close to facilities related to Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The Palmachim site is near the Soreq Centre, which is responsible for nuclear weapons research and design, and the Mount Carmel site is near the Yodefat Rafael facility in Haifa—which is associated with the production of Jericho missiles and the assembly of nuclear weapons—and near the base for Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines, which are rumored to be nuclear-capable.

Google Earth’s images of Israel have been intentionally blurred since 1997, due to a US law known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment which prohibits US satellite imagery companies from selling pictures that are “no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.” As a result, it is not easy to locate the exact position of the Yahalom batteries; for example, given the number of facilities and the quality of the imagery, the site at Palmachim is particularly challenging to spot.

However, this law is actually being revisited this year and could soon be overturned, which would be a massive boon for Israel-watchers. Until that happens though, Israel will remain blurry and difficult to analyze, making creative OSINT techniques like Harel’s all the more useful.


Sentinel-1 data from 2014 onwards is free to access via Google Earth Engine here, and Harel’s dataset is available here.

Russia Images the LACROSSE Spysat

A Russian satellite tracking facility in Siberia has produced rarely-seen photographs of a U.S. intelligence satellite.

The U.S. Lacrosse radar satellite was captured in images generated at Russia’s Altay Optical Laser Center, apparently between 2005 and 2010. A selection of images was compiled and analyzed by Allen Thomson. See An Album of Images of LACROSSE Radar Reconnaissance Satellites Made by a 60 cm Adaptive Optics System at the G.S. Titov Altai Optical-Laser Center.

“The images contain enough information (range, angular scale) to perform a bit of technical intelligence (i.e., sophomore high school trigonometry) on the radar antenna size, which is a significant parameter affecting capability,” Mr. Thomson, a former CIA analyst, told Secrecy News.

While provocative, the intent of the imagery disclosure was obscure, he said.

“Why did the Russians release the images?  The US is highly paranoid about releasing resolved images of spysats, ours or others. The Russian paranoia is at least as great, so how did these images get out? What was the purpose?”

The images themselves seem to be mostly just a curiosity. But perhaps they underscore the growing visibility and the corresponding vulnerability of U.S. space-based assets.

“Our asymmetrical advantage in space also creates asymmetrical vulnerabilities,” said Gil Klinger, a defense intelligence official, last year. “Our adversaries recognize our dependence on space and continue to think of ways to respond to our space advantage.”

He testified at a 2014 House Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. national security space activities, the record of which has recently been published. Space protection, orbital debris, the industrial base and related topics were addressed.

Russia’s Altay Optical Laser Center was profiled by Mr. Thomson here.

Change at the United Nations

by: Alicia Godsberg

The First Committee of this year’s 64th United Nations General Assembly (GA) just wrapped up a month of meetings.  The GA breaks up its work into six main committees, and the First Committee deals with disarmament and international security issues.  During the month-long meetings, member states give general statements, debate on such issues as nuclear and conventional weapons, and submit draft resolutions that are then voted on at the end of the session.  Comparing the statements and positions of the U.S. on certain votes from one year to the next can help gauge how an administration relates to the broader international community and multilateralism in general.  Similarly, comparing how other member states talk about the U.S. and its policies can give insight into how likely states may be to support a given administration’s international priorities.

The Obama administration will certainly be looking in the near future for support on some of its new international priorities – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is happening in May, 2010 and the U.S. delegation will likely seek to promote certain non-proliferation measures, such as universal acceptance of the Additional Protocol and the creation of a nuclear fuel bank.[i] However, many states see these and other proposed non-proliferation measures as further restrictions on their NPT rights while the U.S. and the other NPT nuclear weapon states parties (NWS) continue to avoid adequate progress in implementing their nuclear disarmament obligation.  At the same time, other states with nuclear weapons continue to develop them (and the fissile material needed for them) with no regulation at all.  The United Nations (UN) is the court of world public opinion, a place where all member states have a voice.  If President Obama expects to win support for his non-proliferation agenda next May, he needs to win the GA’s support by showing that the U.S. is ready to engage multilaterally again and take seriously its past commitments and the concerns of other states.

While the U.S. continued to vote “no” on certain nuclear disarmament resolutions[ii], there were some noteworthy changes in the position of the new U.S. administration during this year’s voting.  One major shift away from the Bush administration’s voting through last year was a change to a “yes” vote on a resolution entitled, “Renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”  In fact, the U.S. also became a co-sponsor of this resolution.  The change in the U.S. position on the CTBT was likely an important factor in this reversal, as the resolution “urges” states to ratify the Treaty, something Bush opposed but the Obama administration strongly supports.  Similarly, the U.S. voted “yes” on the resolution entitled, “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” and for the first time all five permanent members of the Security Council joined this resolution as co-sponsors.

The change in the U.S. position on the CTBT was welcomed by many delegations on the floor.  Indonesia stated it would move to ratify the Treaty once the U.S. ratifies, and China has hinted at a similar position.  Non-nuclear weapon states have found the past U.S. position – that no new states should have nuclear weapons programs while the U.S. continues its own without any legal restrictions on the right to test nuclear weapons – to be hypocritical.  Add to this that the U.S. and other NWS have promised to work for the entry into force of the CTBT in the final documents of the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences, even using this promise as a way to get the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, and it may be that the CTBT is the sine qua non for the future of the NPT regime.

The U.S. delegation gave some strong signals that the Obama administration may be planning on decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. nuclear weapons (so-called “de-alerting”) in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  This speculation comes from remarks on the floor, when the sponsors of a resolution that had been tabled for the past two years entitled, “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems” stated they would not be tabling the resolution this year.[iii] The sponsors stated  that they would not be tabling the resolution because nuclear posture reviews were underway in a few countries and they hoped leaving the issue of operational readiness off the floor would, “facilitate inclusion of disarmament-compatible provisions in these upcoming reviews and help maintain a positive atmosphere for the NPT Review Conference.”  Apparently the U.S. delegation pushed to leave this resolution off the floor, not wanting to vote against it again while the NPR was underway.   Many took these political dealings as a sign that the Obama administration was pushing at home for a review of the operational readiness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. nuclear forces would be a welcome change in the U.S. nuclear posture, adding time for decision-making and deliberation during a potential nuclear crisis.  Such a change would also send an unambiguous signal to the international community that the U.S. was taking its nuclear disarmament obligation seriously, the perception of which is necessary for cooperation on non-proliferation goals in 2010 and beyond.

Another long-standing U.S. position apparently under review by the Obama administration relates to outer space activities.  The Bush administration spoke of achieving “total space dominance” and the U.S. has been against the multilateral development of a legal regime on outer space security for 30 years.  U.S. Ambassador to the CD Garold N. Larson spoke during the First Committee’s thematic debate on space issues, saying that the administration is now in the process of assessing U.S. space policy, programs, and options for international cooperation in space as part of a comprehensive review of space policy.  The U.S. delegation changed its vote on the resolution, “Prevention of an arms race in outer space” from a “no” last year to an abstention this year, and did not participate in a vote on a resolution entitled, “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space” due to the current review of space policy.  The U.S. message on outer space issues seemed to be that here too the new administration was looking to engage multilaterally instead of pursuing a unilateral agenda.

Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher mentioned another change in U.S. policy in her remarks to the First Committee – the support for the negotiation of an effectively verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT)[iv].  Previously, the Bush administration had removed U.S. support for negotiating an FMCT with verification protocols, stating that such a Treaty would be impossible to verify.  Without verification measures, which were part of the original Shannon Mandate[v] for the negotiation of an FMCT, many non-nuclear weapon states saw little value in negotiating the Treaty.  Further, because verification was part of the original package for negotiation, the Bush administration’s change was seen as dismissive of the multilateral process and a further example of U.S. unilateral action without regard for the concerns of other countries or the value of multilateral processes.  With the U.S. delegation stating that it supported negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT as called for under the original mandate, the Obama administration again showed a marked change from its predecessor and a willingness to engage in multilateralism.

What does all this mean?  President Obama stood before the world in Prague and pledged that the U.S. would work toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and has brought the issue of nuclear disarmament back to the forefront of international politics.  President Obama recognizes that the U.S. cannot work toward this vision alone – we have security commitments to allies that need to be addressed as the U.S. makes changes to its strategic posture and policy, there are other nuclear armed countries that need to have the same goal and work toward it in a safe and verifiable manner, and there is the danger of nuclear terrorism and unsecured fissile material that needs to be addressed by the entire global community.  In other words, the new administration recognizes the value in collective action to solve global problems, and at the 64th annual meeting of the UN General Assembly this year, the U.S. began putting some specific meaning behind President Obama’s general statements.  With a pledge to work toward ratifying the CTBT at home and to work for other ratifications necessary for the Treaty’s entry into force, a renewed commitment to negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT, and changes in long standing positions on outer space security and likely also on operational readiness of nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has shown the U.S. is back as a willing partner to the institutions of multilateral diplomacy.  More than anything, this change – if it turns out to be genuine – will help advance President Obama’s non-proliferation goals at the upcoming NPT Review Conference.  Of course the U.S. has internal battles to overcome, such as Senate ratification of the CTBT, but if promise and policy reviews are met with actions that can easily be interpreted by the rest of the world as genuine nuclear disarmament measures, President Obama has a greater chance to achieve an atmosphere of cooperation on U.S. non-proliferation goals at the upcoming NPT Review Conference in May, 2010.

[i] President Obama’s non-proliferation agenda was presented on May 5, 2009 to the United Nations by Rose Gottemoeller (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation) at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. http://www.state.gov/t/vci/rls/122672.htm

[ii] A few of the nuclear disarmament-related resolutions the US voted “no” on were: Towards a nuclear weapon free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments; Nuclear disarmament; and Follow-up to nuclear disarmament obligations agreed to at the 1995 and 200 Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

[iii] The US had voted “no” on this resolution the past two years, joined only by France and the UK.

[iv] Ellen Tauscher mentioned that the US “looks forward to the start of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty” without further elaboration.  President Obama, unlike President Bush, has made clear that his administration supports an effectively verifiable FMCT.  For examples of this new policy direction, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/us-eu-joint-declaration-and-annexes; http://geneva.usmission.gov/2009/06/04/gottemoeller/; and http://www.state.gov/t/vci/rls/127958.htm

[v] Historical background on FMCT negotiations: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/fmct.html

North Korea Launches Rocket but Satellite Fails

Despite a world of advice to the contrary, the North Koreans launched their Taepodong-2 or Unha rocket yesterday morning. Recent reports are that the first two stages operated correctly but the third stage failed. Reading between the lines a bit, it might have failed to ignite rather than exploding. This seems to be a replay of the Taepodong-1 test satellite launch attempt: In that case, both stages one and two seemed to operate properly but the third stage apparently exploded and the satellite never entered orbit. (That failure did not discourage the North Koreans, who announced that the whole thing was a great success and the satellite was up there. My bet is they will do the same thing this time.)

So was the test a failure? Not at all. The reason the world is worried about this test is not because we are worried about competition in the satellite launch business. (Good luck to them!) The world worries because the launcher the North Koreans used is a Taepodong-2, which most everyone believes is their next step up toward a long-range ballistic missile. By taking a warhead off and putting a small third stage and a satellite on top, they might call it a space launcher but the first two stages are exactly the same. The last time the configuration was tested, it exploded 40 seconds into its flight and that flight was a clear failure. No doubt, the North Koreans would have been happier this time with a little satellite up there broadcasting patriotic songs but everything they needed to test for a military missile appears to have worked in yesterday’s test. From the military perspective, the test at this point seems to have been largely successful, in that it demonstrated what needed to be demonstrated and the North Koreans got the information they needed to get.

Does this mean they have a missile that can reach the United States? Well, not really. This test is a big step forward for them but one test does not make a ballistic missile program. There is much more for them to do. We have no idea what they judge the accuracy of the missile and they have not tested an appropriate reentry vehicle. This missile test is an very unfortunate development. I wish the North Koreans had more finese. But it does not give them a ballistic missile capability yet.
Addendum: More information is coming it. Apparently, not only did the satellite fail to enter orbit, but the second stage fell short of the predicted impact area. That suggests that the second stage failed. It could even be that the third stage operated successfully–separated, ignited, guidance worked, and so forth–but without the proper speed and altitude provided by the second stage, it would have no chance of making orbit. If this turns out to be the case, then the conclusions above have to be modified and this is a more limited step forward for the North Korean Taepodong-2 program.

North Korea’s Teapodong-2 Unha Missile Launch: What might we learn?

Indications are that North Korea is moving ahead with its planned launch of a missile with the intent of placing a satellite into orbit. The North Koreans are portraying the launch in purely innocuous, civilian terms even naming the rocket “Unha,” which means “Milky Way” in Korean, to emphasize its space-oriented function. In the West, the rocket is called the Taepodong-2 and is thought to be a long-range (but not truly intercontinental range) ballistic missile.

Even if the rocket launches a satellite, and recent news reports say the payload sections seems to be shaped and sized for a satellite, it would be an important step in their military ballistic missile program. In the early days of the Soviet and American space programs, there was little distinction between military and civilian rocket development and the same would be true of North Korea’s upcoming launch. What I want to discuss in this essay is the question of how much can the outside world learn if the North Korean test goes through, what does it tell us about their ballistic missile capability?

According to the North Korean statements, the Kwangmyongsong-2, or Bright Star Light, satellite is a communications satellite. This is transparently nonsensical, of course. Most communication satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, far beyond the reach of the North Koreans. A single satellite in low Earth orbit will not be a useful communications satellite and I do not believe anyone is expecting the North Koreans to launch a whole constellation of satellites. Perhaps what they mean by a “communications satellite” is that the satellite will be communicating to us, not being used by people to communicate among themselves. According to North Korea, their last satellite, launched in August 1998, orbited the Earth continuously broadcasting the “immortal revolutionary” tune, “Song of General Kim Jung Il.” (This is consistent with the name, Kwangmyongsong or Bright Star Light or Bright Lode Star, is one of the innumerable sobriquets of Kim Jung Il.) Such a satellite never existed in fact. All reports from outside North Korea state that the last stage of the rocket exploded, destroying the satellite. United States Space Command has never tracked any object that could be the North Korean satellite and has detected no such transmission from space. (There is a musical precedent: The first Chinese satellite, which had the notable distinction of actually going into orbit, transmitted the tune, “The East Is Red.”)

The 1998 launch used a Taepodong-1 missile as the space launch vehicle (SLV). The Taepodong-1 is made up of a Nodong missile as a first stage with a Hwasong-6 missile as a second stage. (We should keep in mind that some North Korean missiles, such as the Nodong and Hwasong-6, have been produced in number and even exported so they are well characterized. The Taepodongs are different, they have never been successfully test flow and they are put together from other components. I am somewhat uncomfortable assigning them names as though they are production missiles; at this stage, each one might me a one-off. We shall see.) In the 1998 flight, a third stage was added to boost the small satellite into orbit. It was this additional third stage that apparently failed so the North Koreas could have got substantial and important data on the performance of the first two stages that would have made up the two stages of a military ballistic missile.

The Taepodong-2 was tested only once in 2006 and exploded about 40 seconds into its flight and it seems this upcoming launch is a retry of that failed test. The first stage of the Taepodong-2 appears similar to the Chinese CSS-2 missile. David Wright speculates that the first stage will have four Nodong engines operating together. A single Nodong serves as the second stage. The North Koreans have declared warning zones where the first and second stages are expected to impact. David Wright and Geoffrey Forden have worked backward from the announced splash down zones to see whether they are consistent with the presumed configuration of the Taepodong-2 and they check out.

It would be better for the world if the North Koreans did not go through with this test (perhaps the best outcome would be for the rocket to blow up a few seconds into its flight test—we can always hope) but if they conduct the test, the rest of the world might as well learn as much as we can from it and we can learn a lot.
The missile is being launched from the sort of launch pad that one would expect for a SLV. It is being assembled out in the open and the North Koreans are making no effort to hide the missile. The press has released some low resolution images but the United States, and others, have photo-satellites that can take much higher resolution images, perhaps seeing detail down to several centimeters. It is conceivable that the United States and perhaps others are bold enough to fly unmanned drones nearby to take even more detailed photographs. But unless a drone gets shot down, do not expect any public announcement from either side. So while we on the outside speculate about what the size and shape of the missile is, national intelligence services already know that before the missile even flies.

The missile will be tracked by radar—the Americans and Japanese have radar ships in the area and South Korean and Japanese will have ground-based radar—and this will provide a detailed, instant-by-instant record of the trajectory of the missile. That allows a calculation of the acceleration, which, in turn, allows us to calculate the ratio of the thrust to the weight of the rocket. If we knew one of those, we could then calculate the other and we will get to ways to determine the weight.

The rocket will accelerate and the rate of acceleration will increase because the thrust of the engines remains constant (some more advanced rockets do fancy things with throttling their engines but the North Koreans are probably not there yet) but the rocket is always getting lighter because it is burning up fuel all the time. So we do not know the weight of the rocket, or the thrust, or the fuel flow, but we can figure out all the ratios and some unknowns cancel out in the equations. By seeing how fast the acceleration changes, we can figure out one of the most important measures of rocket technology, the specific impulse. Specific impulse is the amount of “impulse” or total push (technically, momentum change) provided by a given amount of fuel. It is measured in newton-seconds/kilogram or, in English units, pound-seconds/pound. (Some American engineers cancel the pounds of force in the numerator and the pounds of mass in the denominator and report specific impulse in units of seconds, which makes any good physicist weep. And trust me, I will get tons of letters explaining how I am totally wrong and don’t understand specific impulse.) The specific impulse depends on the type of fuel, the efficiency of the combustion, and the maximum temperatures and pressures that the rocket engine can stand, all things that are technical challenges, making specific impulse a good measure of overall technical sophistication of a rocket builder.

Keep in mind that, for long-range rockets, the initial weight of the fuel is about 90% of the total weight, the structure—the tanks, engines, and so forth—are most of the remaining 10% and only a couple of percent of the total weight is payload. So when the rocket first takes off, the fuel is mostly lifting itself. So the efficiency of converting the fuel into thrust is critical; small changes in efficiency translate into large changes in payload that can be delivered to great distances.

As the first two stages separate, they will fall back to Earth. Radar will be able to track their trajectories as well and measure how they are decelerated by falling through the atmosphere. If we knew the drag coefficient of the stage, then, in principle, we could figure out the weight of the empty stage. The problem is that the stages will be tumbling in some complex way as they go down. Even so, by measuring the radar cross section at each instant, particularly at a variety of radar frequencies, and comparing measurements from more than one radar, a computer could develop a picture of how the stage tumbles and then calculate the air resistance and, from that, the weight of the empty stage. I do not know whether the accuracy is great enough to add to information that we would have from other sources, for example, based on knowledge of the Chinese CSS-2 missile. When the stage breaks up in the atmosphere, all bets are off but the first stage at least might hit the water intact. That raises the interesting possibility that pieces could be recovered but the predicted impact area is over very deep water.

Based on past North Korean practice, we know the general category of propellant the rocket uses but not the precise type. The oxidizer will be nitrogen tetroxide or nitric acid or some mixture of the two. The fuel could be kerosene or something more energetic, like dimethyl hydrazine. The two stages could use different propellants. I wondered whether, by observing the plume from the rocket, perhaps from space, and analysis of the spectra, it would be possible to determine the type of propellant. I discussed the idea with a couple of people and the consensus is that you could identify atomic species but not ratios. So the spectrum would reveal nitrogen, but not enough information to know that it came from nitric acid or hydrazine. In fact, the specific impulse will be a better indicator of the propellant type.

Remember that radar tracking gives us ratios, of weight to thrust, for example. If we had one, we could calculate the other but we cannot calculate payload mass directly. If this were a ballistic missile test, then the weight of the reentry vehicle could be determined by watching how it decelerated in the atmosphere. Then we could make a guess as to whether they could build a nuclear bomb within that size and weight. But this looks to be a satellite launch. Instead of a reentry vehicle, the rocket will have a small third stage that will push a small satellite into orbit. The payload ends up in a ballistic orbit in space where there is no air resistance (or very little). So a one kilogram satellite will follow the same trajectory as a thousand kilogram satellite. That is unfortunate, because if we knew how much the third stage weighed, or how much the rocket could launch into space, then we could calculate how far the rocket could throw a payload of any chosen weight. Because the payload ends up in space, we have to make some guesses about the weight.

Telemetry offers the potential for a great deal of information. By intercepting telemetry, we could get direct information on fuel flows and the like. Since the Taepodong-2 is still being developed—they have never had a successful launch—one would expect the North Koreans to have the rocket heavily instrumented and to transmit all those data back. They might do that but, in past flights, their telemetry has been quite limited.

Could the United States shoot the rocket down? Well, sort of. We do not have the capability to intercept the boosting rocket. But a satellite has to be boosted up to the point where it enters its orbit. (In fact, that is sort of the definition of the “orbit,” the point where the boosting stops and the object goes into an unpowered ballistic trajectory; if it is a ballistic trajectory that doesn’t later intercept the atmosphere, we call it an orbit.) The United States has already demonstrated that it can intercept low altitude satellites; lat year the Navy intercepted an old U.S. spy satellite in a decaying orbit. That was in some ways an easier target because the path could be calculated days in advance. While the North Korean satellite is still under power and being boosted up to orbit, it will not have a perfectly predictable path, making intercept complex but not impossible especially because, based on the predicted first and second stage impact areas, we can make a good guess about the flight path and the Aegis missile could be positioned to make an intercept of the third stage or the satellite before it reached final orbit. Note that this intercept would destroy the satellite, which is a stunt which is just a North Korean stunt anyway, but does not deny any information to the North Koreans about what they presumably really care about, a two-stage ballistic missile with military applications. So, intercept of the third stage might give the U.S. some macho pleasure but would not accomplish any military goal. (It would have political implications that I won’t even try to guess at.)

Does this mean that Aegis would work as an intercontinental ballistic missile defense? No, for several reasons, for example, a ballistic missile does not have to power the reentry vehicle up to orbit, the rockets burn for three to five minutes and the RV is on its way and the trajectory is pointing up rather than horizontally, quickly getting out of range of the Aegis.

Overall, the outside world will gather a lot of information about the Taepodong-2 as a ballistic missile based on this satellite test. We will not know the exact payload and range of the ballistic missile version but will certainly know a great deal more than we do now. Unfortunately, so will the North Koreans. Especially since their test of a nuclear explosive, this is a dangerous development.

U.S. Plans Test of Anti-Satellite Interceptor Against Failed Intelligence Satellite

The United States is planning to intercept a dying reconnaissance satellite with a missile launched from a Navy ship. The administration justifies the intercept on the basis of public safety. That is a long stretch, indeed, and thus far in the news coverage that I have seen there is virtually no mention of the political consequences of the United States’ conducting its first anti-satellite test in over two decades.

The United States, along with China, Russia, and other space-faring nations, should be working to ban anti-satellite weapons. Such a ban would work strongly in the best interests of the United States because we depend more, by far, than any other nation on access to space for our economy and security. Any measure that reduces the threats to satellites will enhance American security. The proposed test is a potential public relations bonanza, showing the public how a defensive missile can protect us from a—largely imaginary—danger from above. What follows is a simple analysis of what some of these dangers might be and a description of what might happen. These are questions that should have been asked of the administration.


Ensuring America’s Space Security

This report (PDF) analyzes eight threats to U.S. space assets and examines alternatives to weaponization and future policy recommendations

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