Although space weapons conjures up a lot of crazy ideas and science fiction, the subject has actually garnered much attention. Several ideas that have been proposed are just that, pure science fiction, whereas others are very real and have been banned by international treaties. Space weapons generally have 3 main categories:
- Space-To-Space Weapons
- Space-To-Earth Weapons
- Earth-To-Space Weapons
Let’s go ahead and get started with some of the most realistic weapons and then move to the more fantastical ideas.
These types of weapons are deployed in space in orbit around planet Earth. The purpose of these types of weapons is to attract other space objects, such as satellites or space stations. The two examples of space-to-space weaponry can be found in the Soviet Union.
- The Soviet Almaz secret military space station program was equipped with a fixed 23mm autocannon to prevent hostile interception or boarding by hostile forces. The turret was a modified Tupalov Tu-22 supersonic bomber mount meant to shoot any potential incoming boarding parties. The weapon was only fired on one occasion, which was when the system was unmanned and about to be decommissioned. The worry was the effect of the firing of the cannon on the crew, plus the entire space station had to be turned in the direction of the target to properly align. The story is very interesting and can be found below, but basically the Almaz station was a spy satellite that was disguised as a civilian program.
- The Soviet unmanned Polyus weapons platform was designed to be equipped with a megawatt carbon-dioxide laser and a self-defense cannon. The Polyus program was the USSRs response to the Strategic Defense Initiative by the US. Launched by the Energia rocket, Polyus system successfully deployed. Because of a failure in the guidance system, the system burned up in the atmosphere instead of reaching the desired orbit. It was said that leadership forbade the testing in space due to the perception of weaponization. The history of Polyus has its root in satellite interception and was restarted due to the US Strategic Defense Initiative. The full history deserves its own article but more information can be found below.
These type of weapons are based on Earth or in the sky and are used to take out space based targets. The reality is that most of these types ofweaponstake 1 of 2 forms:
- Anti-Satellite Weapons—This is a weapon that has been developed by a few nations including the US, USSR/Russia, China, and India. What these nations have developed is a weapons system that utilizes ballistic missies to target and destroy satellites. These are basically surface-to-air or air-to-air missiles that are modified to space use and have been in the news for their testing. Recently, there was a Chinese test of anti-satellite mission, which was followed up by a US Test. These tests have received a lot of publicity both for their success but also for their amount of space debris created. Space debris is a major problem for this weapons system since destroying satellites at higher or its can increase the number of tracked space debris significantly.
- The Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars by those against the program, was a 1983 program started by US President Ronald Reagan. The Strategic Defense Initiative was a research program with a goal of developing a defensive system which would destroy enemy ICBMs. There were a plethora of options thrown around, but nothing ever really came of this program. A few designs were conceptualized and some researched, including kinetic kill vehicles and space born lasers. The space born lasers did evolve into tests involving Boeing 747s carrying large laser equipment, but the results of the program proved to be too costly and could not be practically applied.
These type of weapons are probably the most interesting to discuss!
Space based weaponry got started when the Germans in World War 2 had the idea and started looking into a Sun Gun. This would mean that the Germans would launch a large mirror into space with the intent to focus beams of sunshine on any place on the planet.
The other types of space to earth based weaponry falls under the category of Orbital Bombardment. There are 2 treaties that do limit what orbital bombardment weapons can be deployed. As mentioned in both Salt II and Outer Space Test Ban Treaty, nuclearization of space would not be allowed. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union deployed a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System from 1968 to 1983, which could place a nuclear warhead in low Earth orbit. The system could later de-orbit the nuclear weapons at any time to hit any location, but the ban on weaponizing space with clear weapons was banned.
However, this left the door open for kinetic bombardment, which has had its fair share of the spotlight. Because it isn’t prevented by treaties, there have been ideas to launch metal rods, filled with substances such as tungsten and concrete from orbit to reach high speeds when impacting. These weapons do produce a lot of energy to destroy their targets, but are prohibitively costly to lunch because of their extreme weight. The idea of using space weapons have sparked a conversation for some about banning all space weapons, but that idea has not been implemented in any treaty. Therefore, while no nuclear devices and certain other weapons are banned from space, it is still technically possible for a nation to militarize space in some regard.