Satellites: Safe from Terrorists?

I’ve been thinking about the safety of satellites and I’m sure my reasonning is too simplified but here goes:

A) Satellites can apparently be destroyed, disabled or knocked off course relatively easily due to the lightweight construction. A rock the size of a baseball could do plenty of damage.

B) Supercomputers track and calculate the orbit of satellites. Presumably with readings by telescope and such, a scientist could track the orbit of most any satellite.

C) Satellites are put into orbit mainly by rockets (you don’t need a shuttle I guess). Could this be scaled down to work for say, a bushel of baseballs instead of a huge satellite.

D) Could not a terrorist nation or sponsored group; buy a supercomputer to calculate an intercept, buy missile parts, buy a bushell of baseball size rocks, and then - put it all together and start knocking well-known media satellites out of the sky?

Do satellites have a defense system?

I’m guessing it isn’t really possible considering Irag could barely hit Israel with Scuds, but could it happen?

Yes, in theory you could destroy a satellite by hitting it with a baseball, although they’re not as fragile as all that. You’d have to get lucky on where you hit it.

But no, it’s not a real danger at the moment. Launching anything into space is beyond the capability of most nations, but the real hard part is hitting what you’re aiming for. Even if you knew the exact aimpoint, hitting it is tremendously difficult and hitting it at a high enough speed to do significant damage is harder still.

You wouldn’t necessarily need a supercomputer to make the calculations but, FWIW, supercomputers and missile technology are on the government’s do-not-export-to-terrorists (except-for-China) list. And any launch facility capable of reaching space will be visible to the aforementioned satellites before it becomes operational. If it’s an outlaw group the U.S. would presumably have no compunction about destroying the threat on the ground before it became a real threat.

So, for now anyway, satellites are undefended, or rather they rely on their exotic location as a defense. A more realistic threat is blinding a satellite with an earth-based laser. I don’t know if current satellites take any precautions about that. Whether they do or not is probably classified.

“Vandelay!! Say Vandelay!!”

What, If I may be so bold, is so hard about launching a rocket into space? What if Powers106 and I were real mad at some network for canceling our favorite show? One of us happens to be a gazillionaire, and the other owns some real estate in the middle of nowhere. We both have friends who know a thing or two about physics and engineering (I obviously don’t).

So we finance / build this huge rocket engine using a combination of information that is available to the public and 1950’s era technology, and pack it full of baseball-rocks. Sure, sure it won’t be pretty, and it sure as hell won’t hit the broad side of an intergalactic barn, but that is not the point. At some altitude (a few calculations and one of those red-light led timers should do the trick) it goes kaboom, sending out a hail of the aforementioned baseball sized rocks. Lots of them. Lots of them in the general vicinity of the path of the network’s satellite. They are already traveling at our rocket’s speed, and if you add to that the speed given to them from the kabooming, you have a bit of momentum built up. A solar panel here, an antenna there, pretty soon some satellite somewhere is going to bight the moon. (remember, we are terrorists here, no so much concerned with the network’s satellite as we are making a point). Even if they miss their intended target (s) they are going to be zinging about the Earth for some time, wreaking havoc on whatever they encounter along the way, no?

So - a big, fuel-packed rocket with a grenade-like payload. Remember, ‘almost’ counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. We just want to go up and go boom, not with any definite precision. What am I missing?

Once in a while you can get shown the light
in the strangest of places
if you look at it right…

Rhythmdvl - exactly! I don’t even think it has to be some big super rocket - maybe it could be two stories or less…

Also, as for the military seeing the launch site, etc. - I mean, come on, maybe they could see the trucks going in and out, but wouldn’t you think the terrorists, dumb as they might be, would cover it or build it underground or something? I mean, this isn’t rocket science! Or…

You’re missing a good conception of the immensity of space.

You manage to lift a bunch of rocks into space and you scatter them around, shotgun-like. Then what?

  1. The rocks go into orbit, in which case the odds of their intersecting the orbit of your intended target at the exact time the target is passing through the intersection point are vanishingly small.

  2. The rocks do not go into orbit, in which case they fall back to earth, hazardous to the ground crew, but harmless to satellites.

What you need to do is an orbital rendezvous, which is difficult but not impossible. NASA has done it, the Soviets (now the Russians) have done it, but no other spacefaring nation has. It requires sophisticated hardware to fine-tune the orbit achieved at launch (which is, hopefully, close to the final orbit). You not only need to match the orbit with very high precision, but to put your weapon in the same location along the orbit at the same time as your target. Then, having accomplished this (and only then) you explode your “grenade”.

The USAF has done a satellite kill using a missile launched from a modified F-16. They used an intercept, different from the rendezvous described here. This was some time ago and, IIRC, the missile used a net at the final stage to increase the cross-section of the weapon as it neared the target.

So, again, it’s possible. But you and I, even with a gazillionaire friend and a physics book, are not going to do it.

“Vandelay!! Say Vandelay!!”

(A) Yep.

(B) Don’t need a supercomputer, but yes. Assuming you have some kinda terminal homing and just need the general whereabouts at time T, the info is generally publicly available on the web. They’re not a problem to find.

© Sure.

(D) In theory, but only at considerable trouble and expense. It takes some doing just to get something up there, but to have it whack something else that’s up there is not easy. Few rogue nations, and I guess no terrorist groups, are likely to be able to pull it off for a while yet.

If you are only interested in physical attacks, one approach I can think of is to put some sand in a retrograde orbit (which is kinda hard all by itself). You can disperse the cloud enough to give a good hit probability while not needing to aim too precisely, and the high relative speed will help you do a lot of damage. Still hard though. And not even remotely a good bang for your terrorist buck.

Mostly no, unless you count that if you start destroying them we might get mad and drop bombs on you and you might die.

Some military sats might have some anti-laser or anti-EMP type defenses, but probably not against physical attacks. That requires mass, and mass is expensive to get up there.

peas on earth

Pluto–don’t forget that it would be pretty easy for the major powers to tell where the rocket came from. So if NORAD monitored an unannounced rocket launch, and said rocket went into the same orbit as a US satellite, which was followed by the destruction of said US satellites, they’d immediately know who did it. Harsh words, followed by an attack by the US. The rocket-launching bad guys wouldn’t be able to do anything, because they just blew their wad developing, building, and launching their rocket.

You dont need a supercomputer to track satellites,I have done it with a 8088 machine and some simple dos software with enough accuracy to make radio contacts via the “bird”.
Destroying a commerical sat would not take a projectile, all you would have to do is override the ground control radio link and take control long enough to feed bad commands to the onboard computer.
Bingo instant space junk.
A few years back a pirate took over one of HBO sats briefly.

t lion

Just go down to the hobby shop and buy a whole shitload of the biggest Estes rocket motors you can find and build a rocket. Point it at the sky and launch it and you’re bound to hit something. It’s fun, and it’s easy! I’ve done it, and I ain’t no rocket scientist.

Those of you with these kind of space-faring urges are…urged to hie on down to your local VideoPorium, and rent “October Sky”. Not only will it save you over 1 gazillion dollars, minus the $ 3.25 to rent the flick, but it will give you a good cry, AND fire up your imagination in slightly more productive ways.
AND- it’s a true story. :slight_smile:


" If you want to kiss the sky, you’d better learn how to kneel "

The attacking rocket doesn’t need to put it’s payload into orbit. Just pop straight up a couple of hundred miles as the satellite is approaching and let it run into your debris field at 18,000 mph.

A strong, focused electromagnetic pulse aimed at most satellites would fry their guts most efficiently without worrying about all those secure launch facilities, refrigerated-combustable fuels, tracking systems and baseball-sized projectiles.

Hell, a few sun spots play havoc with most satellite communications systems and those systems are “supposedly” shielded to better protect them.

Or if you just have to play with rockets…

Lob a cheap nuke up a couple of miles. It’s EMP should cause enough commotion to make the evening news.

If terrorists had nukes, the safety of orbiting satellites would be the least of our worries; there are plenty of more valuable targets that they could aim at. Like Manhattan.

Thanks, I think.

You still have to put it in the right place at the right time. Your debris field isn’t going to hang around up there waiting for the satellite to fly into it. If it went straight up it’s going to fall straight down. The reason the satellite is going 18,000 mph is because it is in orbit and needs
that much velocity to stay there.

Once again, this is a possible scenario, but you still have a very narrow window of opportunity. Eighteen thousand miles an hour is five miles a second. Assuming you could get the spatial coordinates exactly right, if your timing is off by a tenth of a second you miss by half a mile.

The Soviets couldn’t hide their missile silos or rocket launch sites from U.S. satellites in the 60s. In the intervening time the technology has improved markedly. Do you think a large underground construction project would go unremarked? It’s not a matter of smart or dumb – it’s just that a launch site requires a certain amount of infrastructure.

Besides, do you think you can go the hardware store and order 50,000 gallons of liquid oxygen without raising any eyebrows? Countries hoping to keep their nuclear/biochemical/missile technologies secret from foreign intelligence agencies invariably provide a covering activity to explain all the buildings and unusual equipment and supplies being ordered. This provides some legal cover but doesn’t really fool anyone. Historically, the U.S. has been overzealous in assuming there is illicit activity – recall a certain Sudanese pharmaceutical plant.

Finally, there is a tradeoff between what it costs you to destroy the satellite and what it costs the owners to replace it. If by some wild chance you succeed in destroying a billion dollar spy satellite you will raise the federal deficit by some minuscule amount – but do you suppose you’ll ever get a chance to destroy a second satellite?

“Vandelay!! Say Vandelay!!”