Op-ed | Preserving our eyes in the sky

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The threat of new exo-atmospheric nuclear explosions has never been higher

This op-ed originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In 1962, a high-altitude nuclear explosion called Starfish Prime increased the charged-particle radiation in near-Earth space to values easily 10 million times the “natural” radiation level. This caused over a dozen operating spacecraft of the time to fail over a several-week period. A dozen may not sound like a lot, but this was a large fraction of all the satellites in Earth orbit at the time.

Today, the threat has never been higher of a new round of above-the-atmosphere (“exo-atmospheric”) nuclear explosions. North Korea, Iran, and other players are rapidly developing the capability to explode powerful nuclear devices at high altitudes. Not only could such a weapon produce devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects to damage ground-based or seaborne electronic equipment, but it could once again load the near-Earth magnetic field with highly damaging ionizing radiation. This could be a replay of the Starfish event of the early 1960s. A major difference, however, is that today there are over 1,800 operating Earth satellites (over half of which are in low Earth orbits). And, being based on modern microelectronics, these are much “softer” targets and would be much more easily damaged by radiation than were the vacuum-tube spacecraft of the 1960s.

The U.S. has long had fleets of satellites in space to monitor and detect atmospheric and exo-atmospheric nuclear explosions. These sensors can tell where, when, and how atomic bomb explosions have occurred. But these monitoring spacecraft are getting old and interagency disagreement, amid reassessments of requirements, is threatening to prevent the next generation of spacecraft from having the right sensors on board. Thus, for the first time in 50 years, we may not have the eyes in the sky to monitor such threatening nuclear events.

A recent Department of Defense Office of Inspector General report shows that there needs to be more centralized coordination of the U.S. Nuclear Detonation Detection System program. Multiple organizations involving parts of the DoD, Department of Energy and other agencies attempt to work together to provide nuclear detection systems and evaluate results from their on-orbit performance. There is — according to the Office of Inspector General report — a severe danger that gamma ray and neutron detection capabilities for exo-atmospheric detonations will disappear by 2023. Considering the long development and deployment time scales for space systems, this is right around the proverbial corner for the U.S. Nuclear Detonation Detection System to become dangerously less functional. Resources need to be identified and deployed now to address this pressing issue.

In order to be properly effective, the U.S. Nuclear Detonation Detection System stakeholders all need to work together closely and cooperatively. Each agency must understand (and agree to) its assigned roles in the overall program. Adequate budgetary authority needs to be assigned to each partner agency so it can play its proper part. Congress and its various oversight committees must work across agency and funding boundaries to ensure a smoothly and effectively functioning nuclear detonation detection program. The executive branch must work expeditiously. But of paramount importance is that congressional oversight committees need to act very soon or it will be too late.

It is imperative that advanced nations of the world do everything in their power to prevent a new round of atmospheric nuclear explosions. But it is not hard to envision a near-term set of events in which a rogue nuclear state detonates a powerful nuclear weapon in near-Earth space. The U.S. had better have the tools in place to detect who did it and understand how the scenario will play out. Acts of war against our advanced technological society go to the core of our national survival. We are well advised to pay the relatively small price right now to preserve our eyes in the sky in order to avoid even greater losses in the future.


Daniel N. Baker is the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder.