U.S. Air Force Moves to Prevent Militarization of Space

Many satellites orbit earth today, but not all come in peace. Image source: Getty Images.

Nukes in space. Killer satellites. The militarization of space.

These are all scary concepts, dating back to the bad old days of the Cold War and worries over countrywide, electromagnetic pulse-spawned blackouts. And on this score, we've got both good news and bad news for you.

The bad news: Nearly three decades after the Cold War's end, worries over the militarization of space have been renewed. Both China and Russia have demonstrated the ability to shoot downsatellites from orbit. Furthermore, the U.S. Air Force believes there may even be weaponized satellites in orbit around the Earth today. As Air Force Space Command Lt. Sarah Burnett recently explained: "Some countries have clearly signaled their intent and ability to conduct hostile operations in space as an extension of the terrestrial battlefield."

But there's good news, too: The Air Force has a plan to deal with that.

Satellites for peace

Last week, United Launch Alliance -- the joint venture formed by Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) in 2005to perform military launches for the U.S. government -- confirmed the successful launch of two U.S. government satellites into orbit.

And these are not ordinary satellites. Built by Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA), these sats constitute the final two pieces of a four-satellite "Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program" the Air Force first began putting in place in 2014. Their mission: to scour Earth's orbit for weaponized satellites capable of doing harm to satellites already in orbit.

Maneuverable in orbit, the satellites will be tasked with flying close to other satellites currently in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles and higher above Earth surface. Approaching their satellites, the GSSAP birds will snap pictures and presumably use other technology (the program was up until 2014 a "classified" military secret) to determine whether a satellite is what it claims to be -- say, a communications or weather sat -- or something more sinister, such as a kamikaze "space mine" designed to approach and destroy civilian satellites.

You've been warned

With two years of experience operating GSSAP under its belt, Administration Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Douglas Loverro has already heaped praiseupon the system, saying "threats can no longer hide in deep space."

This lends some comfort to those of us down on the ground, perhaps looking up with some trepidation, but even more reassuring, the declaration may dissuade hostile actors from trying to militarize space in the first place by raising the possibility that if they do so, they will be caught in the act and publicly shamed for making the attempt.

What it means for investors

How much it cost to have Orbital Sciences build the GSSAP system, or for Boeing and Lockheed to launch it, is hard to say. A review of the Defense Department's archives of contract awards reveals no mention of GSSAP at all -- which perhaps shouldn't be surprising given its historically classified nature.

SpaceNews.com estimates the cost at $700 million, which sounds low. Boeing and Lockheed are known to charge halfthat just for one launch aboard their Delta IV heavy lift rocket -- and it took two launches to put the four GSSAP satellites in orbit. Presumably, building the satellites also cost something.

In the year the first pair of GSSAP satellites launched, S&P Global Market Intelligence data show that Orbital reported more than $370 million in revenues from its Space Systems division overall. With two more satellites constructed and sent up, I think it's not unreasonable to ballpark GSSAP at $1 billion-plus in cost. And those are costs that may need to be repeated once the current flight of four GSSAP satellites wears out and needs to be replaced -- or supplemented to cover an increasing population of satellites in orbit.

Long story short? There's a lot of money to be made in space -- not necessarily by weaponizing it, but also for the continuing effort to keep space safe, pacific, and open for business.

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