Satellite tracking software freely available on the Internet and a smattering of textbook physics could be used by any organisation that can get hold of an intermediate range rocket to mount an unsophisticated attack on military or civilian satellites. Such an attack would require modest engineering capability and only a limited budget.
A terrorist organisation or rogue state could threaten essential satellite systems, say Adrian Gheorghe of Old Dominion University Norfolk, in Virginia, USA and Dan Vamanu of "Horia Hulubei" National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, in Bucharest, Romania. Military satellites, global positioning systems, weather satellites and even satellite TV systems could all become victims of such a simple attack.
Gheorghe and Vamanu have carried out an analysis of just how easy it could be to knock out strategic satellites, their findings suggest that dozens of systems on which military and civilian activities depend make near-space a vulnerable environment. The team used a so-called "mathematical game" and textbook physics equations for ballistics to help them build a computer model to demonstrate that anti-satellite weaponry is a real possibility.
Accuracy and elegance are not issues in carrying out a satellite attack, the researchers say, as long as the projectile hits the satellite. In fact, all it would take to succeed with an amateurish, yet effective anti-satellite attack would be the control of an intermediate range missile, which is well within the reach of many nations and organisations with sufficient funds, and a college-level team dedicated to the cause. "Any country in possession of intermediate range rockets may mount a grotesquely unsophisticated attack on another's satellites given the political short-sightedness that would be blind to a potentially devastating retaliation," the researchers say.
On January 11, 2007, China deliberately destroyed one of its own weather satellites in a test, which some analysts suggested as having the potential to revive a techno-political race believed to be defunct since the 1980s. According to Gheorghe and Vamanu that was the cool analytical view, but some hot diplomats are quoted as saying this demonstration is inconsistent with international efforts to avert an arms race in space and so undermining security.
"While it may be true that, when it comes to nuts and bolts, things may not be quite as simple as they sound here, the bare fact remains - it can be done." Their conclusions suggest that the risk of deliberate satellite sabotage should be placed higher on the security agenda.