How to destroy a satellite without firing a single shot

Anti-satellite weapons are capable not only of destroying the satellite physically, but also of disabling the electronic equipment of the spacecraft. Even more, to stop effective work, it is enough to break the communication of the satellite with the control center or simply push it into another orbit.

Супутник — це теж електронна система
A satellite can be simply captured. Source:

Radio-electronic jamming

In order to prevent the enemy from taking advantage of its satellites, it is not necessary to destroy them physically. Essentially, satellites, at least communications and navigation satellites, are transmitters and receivers of radio signals coming to them from Earth. So they may be disabled by radio-electronic warfare.

Electronic warfare (EW) consists of two parts: radio-electronic jamming and radio-electronic protection. The former suppresses or imitates the signal from the satellite in the locations, where it is caught by the terrestrial antenna. For this, powerful chaotic oscillations are created at the required frequency. Among them, it is impossible to receive a clear and high-quality signal from the device.

This is how Russia tried to break the connection both during the aggression in Donbas in 2014 and at the beginning of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Система постановки радіоперешкод «Красуха-2»
Russian radio jamming system Krasukha-2. Source: Wikipedia

In particular, active attempts were made to jam satellite communications using mobile jamming stations. In January and February, HawkEye 360 ​​satellites also recorded attempts to jam signals of the global navigation system GPS near the Ukrainian border.

Radio-electronic protection

To prevent attempts to jam the satellite signal, engineers use radio-electronic protection. It mainly consists of three methods.

The first is the use of a wide radiation band. It is extremely difficult to put obstacles at the same time on all frequencies. And when the signal goes simultaneously on several wavelengths, then at least one of them will break through to the receiver and there it will already be isolated by the electronics. This is how Elon Musk’s Starlink “dishes” manage to “break through” Russian obstacles and provide Ukraine with satellite Internet.

The second method is related to the first and consists in transmitting a digital signal in coded bunches that are duplicated. When a bunch of such signals is spread over a wide band, some of them will necessarily break through even very strong interference and the digital device on the spot will make a coherent message out of them.

Finally, it is possible to use an even wider range of frequencies and constantly change the wave on which the transmission is carried out. The adversary simply cannot know which part of the radiation spectrum should be jammed at the moment.

Electromagnetic pulse

After all, the electromagnetic radiation can be so strong that it will cause huge induced currents in the satellite’s electrical networks. As a result, its sensitive electronic equipment will simply burn out.

Theoretically, it is possible to use weapons similar to anti-drone guns, which are actively used in the Russian-Ukrainian war, against satellites. Then it has to be placed on special satellites.

However, the same problems arise with the directed radiation of an electromagnetic pulse as with lasers. It is difficult to focus electromagnetic radiation, creating the necessary energy density at a distance of tens of kilometers. And the “battery” for such a “cannon” should have the power of a small power plant.

Електромагнітний імпульс на орбіті може знищити не тільки супутник, але і наземну інфраструктуру
Visualization of an electromagnetic pulse in orbit. Source:

Therefore, the most available for use is a powerful non-directional electromagnetic pulse. The only problem is that its effective source is an atomic explosion. And the use of this type of weapons in orbit is prohibited by international agreements, the violation of which could get a global nuclear conflict started.

Hackers and satellites

Thanks to modern technologies, it is possible to damage the satellite in a more elegant way. It is based on the practice of imitation. Instead of creating chaotic interference, it is necessary to reproduce the enemy signal, but add the necessary changes to it. In this way, it is possible to transmit false data to the enemy.

Management of terrestrial and orbital satellite systems is carried out through special computer programs. That is, the exchange of information takes place thanks to the written code, which makes this whole process vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Так хакери зламують супутник
Scheme of intervention in the operation of the satellite. Source:

Not only satellites can be attacked, but also any element of the system that transmits or receives the code. Identifying the most vulnerable link in this chain is the main task of a military hacker.

A cyber attack can occur through special code, to which the program will react incorrectly and eventually stop functioning. Another way is DDoS attack. On one of the companion devices a huge number of requests are received by the network infrastructure, which significantly exceeds its bandwidth. As a result, the system is overloaded and starts to work slowly or fails altogether.

It was by DDoS attacks that Moscow tried to hack the Viasat satellite systems used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine to control drones at the beginning of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Interception of control of satellites

The advantage of cyberattacks is that a hacker can not only disable a satellite, but also intercept its control. In this way, it is possible to gain access to secret information or even use enemy satellites to support one’s own forces on the surface of the Earth.

One of the ways to break into the system is to steal the access password. Most often, such information is obtained by intelligence agents. However, a hacker can hack the system, find its vulnerability and gain access to it bypassing the authorization system.

Space tugs as weapons

The satellite can be disabled not only by attacking its electronics, but also by simply pushing it out of orbit with a tug. Space tugs are orbital vehicles equipped with powerful engines and large fuel reserves. They usually deliver satellites into target orbits. Or, on the contrary, they “push” to the Earth those devices that have ceased to function and have turned into space debris.

In January 2022, the Chinese satellite Shijian-21 successfully collided with the non-functional navigation satellite Beidou-2 and sent it into a “graveyard orbit”. In this simple event, the US military sees a potential threat to its own satellite infrastructure. After all, if a need arises, such a tugboat can also push one of the American reconnaissance vehicles. And for some of them, in order to stop being useful, it is enough to simply enter the wrong orbit.

Китайський буксир для супутників
A possible design of the Chinese tugboat. Source:

Such a tug will have no problem forcing an enemy satellite in low orbit to fall to Earth. It is enough to give an impulse for braking, and then it will start falling by itself.

After all, an enemy satellite can simply be stolen. For this, again, it is necessary to use a tug, which will change the orbit of the apparatus. It synchronizes, for example, with the space station, where astronauts will take it apart and see how it is designed.