As soon as the Space Age got under way, the Soviet Union was trying to build antisatellite weapons—and kept trying for decades.
Half a century ago, on Nov. 1, 1963, the Soviet Union launched the first prototype of the "killer" satellite—what we would call today an antisatellite system, or ASAT. Officially announced as Polyot-1 (or Flight-1), this highly maneuverable spacecraft was intended to test whether the Soviets could approach an "enemy" satellite and blow it in smithereens. This mission set off a decades-long race to develop and deploy offensive weapons in space that culminated in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan's famous Star Wars program.
Although a nuclear standoff between East and West subsided soon thereafter and the Cold War thawed, the danger of weaponization of space flared up again recently with the emergence of new space powers, such as China and Iran.
With the world dependent more than ever on satellites for communications, navigation, and other daily needs, the very possibility of orbital warfare could trigger a domino effect of costly measures and countermeasures—as the history of the Soviet killer satellite effort vividly illustrates.
Origin of the Soviet Satellite-Killer
The Space Age had hardly begun when Soviet engineers were already busy drawing blueprints of satellite killers. Following the famed 1960 Soviet shoot-down of an American U-2 spy plane, Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev was determined to do the same with the emerging "threat" from spy satellites, particularly the American Satellite Interceptor, or SAINT project, developed at the end of the 1950s and publicly disclosed in 1960.
Like their American counterparts, Soviet engineers initially considered piloted space fighters armed with missiles. Prominent leaders of the Soviet aviation industry including Vladimir Myasishev and, later, Vladimir Chelomei proposed orbital space planes, but their ideas were too far-fetched for that era. In the interim, the USSR settled on a remotely controlled robotic spacecraft.
The father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, pushed for his flight-proven R-7 ICBM to carry an interceptor that would be sent on an exact collision course with its target. However, Chelomei argued for a self-guided orbital vehicle that would enter the proximity of an enemy satellite, explode, and pierce its target with shrapnel.
In 1960, the Kremlin chose Chelomei's concept. Dubbed Istrebitel Sputnikov (for the Satellite Destroyer), the barrel-shaped spacecraft would sport 17 thrusters to make any conceivable maneuver in orbit. It would be supported by a complex network of ground stations spread over several time zones across the Soviet Union for tracking enemy satellites and guiding the killer to its target. The top-secret command post for the system was located in the Moscow suburb of Noginsk. A pair of guidance stations were deployed in the Siberian town of Irkutsk and near Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan.
By 1962, while Soviet newspaper headlines proclaimed the great successes of cosmonauts and called for peaceful exploration of space, the USSR was focusing much of its space effort on a killer satellite. According to Vladimir Polyachenko, a leading engineer in the IS project, Chelomei led daily meetings on the status of its development. On February 11, 1963, the Kremlin leadership, including Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, appeared in Moscow's suburb of Fili, where Chelmei's engineers labored on the first killer satellite. Polyachenko showed Khrushchev a huge terrestrial globe covered by a web of blinking satellite orbits designed to illustrate how the interceptor would work. Khrushchev liked what he saw.
After the successful first launch in November 1963, clandestine flight tests of Soviet killer satellites continued for most of the 1960s. Exactly 45 years ago, on Nov. 1, 1968, the USSR succeeded with an actual intercept and the destruction of a specially designed target satellite in orbit. However, it would take another five years before the antisatellite system entered experimental service, and another whole decade before it was fully operational. By 1978, a converted R-36 ICBM topped with the IS interceptor reportedly could be rolled out to the launchpad from its bunker in Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, propped into vertical position, loaded with propellants, and blasted off toward its target in just an hour and a half.
But on August 18, 1983, the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov suddenly declared an end to the tests, apparently as a gesture of goodwill in the midst of the escalating Cold War. Yet behind the scenes, engineers continued working on further improvements to the operational killer satellites, as well as on much bigger and frightening projects—frightening plans to employ orbital battle stations and even laser weapons.
The upgraded antisatellite system, code-named IS-MU, was capable of chasing enemy satellites even if they tried avoidance maneuvers. It was declared operational in 1991. Just two years later, though, as the Cold War wound down, the cash-strapped government led by the Russian president Boris Yeltsin pulled the plug on the system. Around the same time, the first photo showing the IS satellite was finally published, taking the official veil of secrecy off the project.
New Generation of Russian Killer-Satellites
After more than a decade-long hiatus, the Russian antisatellite program showed signs of life again in the 2000s , as the United States and China vividly, even if unofficially, had demonstrated their capability to attack and destroy satellites in space. No longer toying with the ideas of expensive and vulnerable battle stations in orbit, the Russian military banked on converted ballistic missiles placed in well-protected silos and equipped with maneuverable satellites capable of sending missiles on a collision course with enemy satellites at a minute's notice.
In March 2009, then deputy minister of defense Vladimir Popovkin told journalists that Russia had "retained basic assets" in Naryad-VN and Naryad-VR (or Sentry) systems. "We can't sit and watch others do it. I can only say similar works are done in Russia too," Popovkin said. Popovkin did not elaborate as to what Naryad-V was all about. However, a number of Russian sources recently shed some light on its design.
The Naryad-V, which apparently also has the military designation 14F11, consists of an orbital space tug, whose civilian version is known today as Briz-K (Breeze). Its engine can fire up to 75 times during one mission. This highly maneuverable rocket stage serves as a launch platform for multiple missiles developed at a highly classified KB Tochmash design bureau. Each missile initially receives guidance from its orbital launch platform and homes in on its target with the help of powerful thrusters facing in four different directions. The missile's warhead, developed at KB Geofizika in Moscow, eventually locks onto its target, and the missile's own minicomputer takes over the flight control.
The Naryad-V spacecraft is launched by a lightweight Rockot booster, which is converted from the UR-100NU ballistic missile, once the most numerous ICBM in the Soviet nuclear force. As a space launcher, Rockot can place under 2 tons of cargo into orbit.
In the waning days of the USSR, Rockot flew two suborbital test missions with prototypes of the Naryad-V spacecraft. In 1994, the third test vehicle actually made it into orbit, before the missile's firing crew in Baikonur was finally disbanded in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
The Rockot did survive the economic turmoil of the 1990s, in part thanks to a joint European–Russian commercial venture aimed to haul lightweight foreign satellites into orbit from the Russian military launch site in Plesetsk. In 2002, when President Vladimir Putin visited Khrunichev space center in Moscow, which built both Naryad-V and Rockot, the company's leaders reportedly assured him that the antisatellite system had been ready for a revival.
In January 2010, the commander of the Russian space forces, Oleg Ostapenko, told the official ITAR-TASS news agency that Russia would be able to respond to threats from space. "The USSR was developing inspection and strike spacecraft," Ostapenko said. "Our policy—there should be no war in space, but we are military people and should be ready for everything. Our activities in this direction would be dependent on others, but, trust me, we would be able to respond quickly and adequately."
After half a century of roller-coaster rides for one of the most controversial developments in space, the world still faces a considerable probability of satellites blowing each other up in space. Not coincidentally, far below the Earth orbit, in the atmosphere, remotely controlled flying robots capable of shooting missiles at targets on the ground had already become a reality.