In recent weeks there has been a bit of speculation that collisions between active satellites and space debris could spark WW III. Vitaly Adushkin from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geosphere Dynamics has been quoted as saying space debris presents a, “special political danger”. He cites the hypothetical case in which a satellite is destroyed by a collision with an unknown object.
Given today’s relatively low level of space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities it would be all but impossible to definitively determine whether the object was random debris or a stealth offensive space weapon. The Russian speculates that such an incident could be interpreted as an intentional attack, precipitating armed conflict between space-faring nations.
To date, we know of only one incident in which a satellite was completely destroyed in a collision with an orbiting object. In that case the satellite was a commercial telephony (Iridium 33) satellite. An after-the-fact analysis concluded that the object was an expired Russian spacecraft (Cosmos 2251). Since not all of the roughly 500,000 potentially damaging orbiting objects are tracked, it was fortunate that the object in this case was identified.
Undoubtedly, there will be incidents in which the destroyed satellite is an expensive and critical military spacecraft and the object will not be identified. Since it is common knowledge that at least three countries have the capability to deploy stealth offensive attack spacecraft, any incident involving an element of the national security space infrastructure and an unknown object will likely create a tense political situation.
Some of these critical national security satellites have estimated values in excess of $1 billion. They provide key real-time information required by military decision makers and government leaders. Any unattributed loss of such an asset would be treated as a possible attack by an adversary. Should such an event occur in coincidence with an extreme geopolitical crisis, it appears possible that multi-national war could result.
Obviously, such scenarios should be avoided. Unfortunately, technologies, systems and operational capabilities to definitively identify and track every potentially hazardous space object do not yet exist. Given the extent of the growing orbital debris population and the required investment to identify and track every suspicious object, it is highly unlikely that such a capability will be developed.
In summary, at some point in the future the space debris issue may lead to an unresolvable conundrum that might change our entire civilization.