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OuterSpace Tugboat Doubles as Weapon

Issued: 2018-03-21

A British company has announced plans to launch two new “space tugs” designed to attach to old communications satellites and give them a life-extending boost in orbit.

But the Space Drone tugs, built by London-based Effective Space, are capable of so much more. They could help to clean up orbital junk that endangers satellites and space stations. And under the right circumstances, they—and spacecraft like them—could become weapons.

The Space Drone is the latest in a growing number of satellite models that can, with the proverbial flip of a switch, transform from peaceful space tools to orbital aggressors. These “dual-use” satellites, including several types of orbital inspection and repair spacecraft, arguably raise the risk of war in space.

Weaponizable satellites are “the Pandora’s box of space operations,” James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller who also advised U.S. Space Command, told The Daily Beast.

“Until recently… satellites in orbit were assumed to be untouchable and so were built without any sensory equipment to detect someone nearby,” Oberg added.

The Space Drone and other dual-use satellites that could hijack, damage, or destroy other spacecraft have changed that.

The 800-pound, cube-shape Space Drone is essentially an orbital tugboat. The spacecraft features a docking system and a small motor. A Space Drone can maneuver close to an aging satellite that’s slowly falling back to Earth, attach to it, fire up its own motor, and shove the comms sat back into its proper place.

Effective Space’s first two Space Drones, which are scheduled to launch into a geostationary orbit atop a Russian Proton rocket in 2020, “will significantly extend the life of two communication satellites,” Effective Space states on its website.

Fixed geostationary orbits, 22,000 miles up, are ideal locations for communications satellites that need to remain over the same spot on the planet.

But according to Anatoly Zak, a space expert and author, the tugs could also “remove space junk.” Instead of boosting old but still active satellites, the Space Drones could attach themselves to orbital debris—which poses a collision risk to active satellites—and direct the junk into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.

And there’s no reason a Space Drone couldn’t do the same thing to an active satellite, in essence hijacking it and sending it falling to its destruction.

It’s not clear which country or company will benefit from the Space Drones’ capabilities. The company either doesn’t have a customer yet, or isn’t ready to announce it. “Stay tuned,” Daniel Campbell, managing director of Effective Space, told The Daily Beast.

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