A new arms race in our skies threatens the satellites that control everything from security to communications
An unlikely memorial runs across the middle of the marketplace in Kettering — an otherwise unremarkable English market town. This slab of granite, set into the paving as part of a timeline of local history, reads “Russian Satellites: Grammar School Beats Nasa”. Etched into the stone is the distinctive outline of a sputnik orbiter.
Kettering Grammar School — like the space race — is long gone. But for a period it was on the front line of the extraterrestrial battle between Washington and Moscow. The Kettering Group — the school’s enthusiastic science masters and their eager pupils — became the world’s foremost amateur satellite sleuths, tracking secret Soviet launches and uncovering the location of a previously secret Russian cosmodrome from the workaday shire town.
Military officials from the US, Europe and Asia spoken to by the Financial Times confirm in private what the Kettering Group and other amateur stargazers have been watching publicly. Almost every country with strategically important satellite constellations and its own launch facilities is considering how to defend — and weaponise — their extraterrestrial assets. “I don’t think there is a single G7 nation that isn’t now looking at space security as one of its highest military priorities and areas of strategic concern,” says one senior European intelligence official.
“The threat is increasing and this is a major concern,” says Frank Rose, US assistant secretary of state for arms control. “Both Russia and China are developing ASAT [anti-satellite weapon] capabilities to hold US systems at risk. Now, we don’t believe it’s in anyone’s interest to engage in a space arms race . . . We don’t want conflict in outer space. But be assured, we will be able to operate in a degraded space environment. We’ve made it clear that we will do what is necessary to protect the space assets of the US and our allies against potential attack.”