According to a recent report by Iain Boyd (Professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, the University of Colorado Boulder), Russia is building a new ground-based laser facility designed to interfere in space with satellites passing over in the sky. The main points of Ian Boyd’s read like something out of a science fiction novel.
The news of Russia developing a satellite deterrent technology isn’t surprising, considering that Starlink’s coverage of Ukraine limited Russia’s capacity to advance its military operations as efficiently as it first intended.
A simple defense strategy for Russia
The concept is straightforward: blind enemy spy satellites’ optical sensors with an onslaught of laser light.
This could be a serious threat to international security, as other nations may not be able to rely on accurate satellite imagery and other intelligence gathering abilities when operating in Russian territory.
Due to recent advancements in laser technology, a satellite-destroying laser has been developed. While this technology is plausible, there is little evidence that any nation has successfully tested it.
Russia’s strategy toward satellites it considers hostile echoes sentiments of China, which also considers Musk’s Starlink satellites pose a threat to China’s national security.
Threat to global security or maintaining Russia’s privacy from satellites?
If Russia’s government were able to construct such a laser, it might block optical sensors on satellites from peering down on broad swaths of the nation.
If Russia were to build a laser powerful enough to block optical sensors from peering down on broad swaths of its nation, it would be a powerful tool for the government to use in its secrecy efforts. Such a laser would be able to keep satellites from monitoring large areas of the country, potentially giving the government more privacy.
Moreover, this technology paves the way for the development of laser weapons with the potential to destroy satellites, which is a worrying prospect. Permanently destroyed satellites would significantly impact how we live and work and could have severe implications for global security.
How lasers work
A laser is an instrument for producing a concentrated beam of light or other radiation. In 1960, scientists created the very first laser. Multiple varieties have been developed since then, each employing a unique set of physical principles to produce photons, the fundamental building blocks of light.
A gas laser uses a lot of energy to break down molecules, releasing photons. A chemical laser uses specific chemical reactions to release energy, which is then used to power the laser. Solid-state lasers use customized crystalline materials to convert electrical energy into photons, amplified and focused into a coherent beam by a beam director.
The physics of lasers explained
The effects of a laser’s focused beam of energy on its intended target vary and depend on the photon intensity and wavelength. For instance, a laser can hit its target with light if the photons are in the visible spectrum.
For a laser to be able to damage or destroy its target, it needs to be operating at a sufficiently high power level and a reasonably close range. Additionally, the laser must be able to focus its beam on the target, which is often done using a lens. If all of these factors are met, then the laser can cause the target material to heat up, vaporize, melt, or even burn.
Lasers are used in many ways, from laser pointers to medical procedures. Researchers are also working on using lasers to boost communications between spacecraft and the ground.
Lasers have been used extensively in military operations. One of the most well-known applications is the Airborne Laser, which was intended to shoot down ballistic missiles. However, the program was ultimately doomed by the challenges associated with its thermal management and maintenance of its chemical laser.
Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed
The United States military attempted to intercept incoming ballistic missiles by putting a strong laser atop a big jet aircraft in the early 2000s. The laser was powerful enough to destroy a missile in mid-air, and the project was successful enough that the military has since continued to develop and research the technology.
The Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system is a successful military application that uses a solid-state laser to protect aircraft from heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. When the missile sensor sees the light from the LAIRCM system, it becomes dazzled and loses track of its target.
The use of lasers in the military has been increasing, with new applications being found daily. One of the most popular uses for lasers is to defend against small targets, such as drones, mortar shells, and other threats. The Air Force is also studying the use of lasers on aircraft for defensive and offensive purposes.
The Russian laser
The new Russian laser facility, Kalina, is designed to dazzle and temporarily blind satellite sensors collecting intelligence. This is done by saturating the sensors with enough light to prevent them from functioning. Given the vast distances involved and the fact that the laser beam must first travel through the Earth’s atmosphere, this is an extremely challenging undertaking.
Long-range targeting with lasers is nothing new.
NASA’s Apollo 15 mission in 1971, for instance, installed meter-sized reflectors on the Moon that are targeted by lasers on Earth to provide positional data.
The capabilities of the Russian laser based at Kalina
The power level and optical system are crucial in sending enough photons across long distances. Kalina operates in a pulsed mode in the infrared and generates about 1000 joules per square centimeter. By comparison, a pulsed laser used in retinal surgery is only around one one hundred thousandths as vital, according to Boyd’s writing.
Kalina transmits a substantial amount of the light it produces to remote satellites. This is possible because lasers produce collimated beams, meaning that the photons in the beam travel in parallel with one another. Kalina utilizes a telescope a few meters in diameter to concentrate its beam.
Typically, optical-sensor spy satellites operate at the height of only a few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface. These satellites take many minutes to round the globe after they’ve settled over a particular location. Kalina must be capable of keeping a steady gaze on the optical sensor for that time. The telescopic system performs these duties.
If the details of the telescope are accurate, Kalina will be able to aim at satellites hundreds of miles above its location.
This would protect an enormous region, on the order of 40,000 square miles (approximately 100,000 square kilometers), from surveillance by satellites equipped with optical sensors.
Peresvet truck-mounted laser
Russia also says it deployed the less powerful Peresvet truck-mounted laser dazzle device in 2019. This announcement may intimidate other countries into withdrawing their laser dazzle devices or demonstrating Russia’s technological superiority. However, according to Boyd, evidence of its successful use remains lacking.
Laser technology is advancing to the point where it could permanently damage space-based sensors. While this has important policy implications, it could also lead to an escalation of tensions between nations.
Lasers in space
The principal cause for alarm is the possibility of laser weapons being used in space. Due to the shorter distances to targets and the lack of atmospheric interference, such systems would be highly effective. Compared to ground-based systems, lasers in orbit would require far lower power levels to damage spacecraft severely. It is possible to disable any satellite using a space-based laser by directing the beam onto its fuel and power tanks.
There is a race between nations for military supremacy in Space. The United States military has established the Space Force, the first new service branch in 73 years, with the primary mission of protecting American interests in space and patrolling the moon.
Regulating laser weaponry
As laser weapons become more prevalent in space, it’s essential to consider the potential consequences. For example, laser weapons could cause damage to satellites and other spacecraft, and they could also disrupt communication and navigation systems. In addition, laser weapons could create hazardous radiation environments.
It’s important to consider all of these potential consequences when developing policies related to laser weapons. Otherwise, space could become a more dangerous place.
So there you have it, folks. If you want to damage or destroy your target, all you need is a high-powered laser, a good lens, and some determination.