First fix: Trouble in orbit

June 14, 2024  - By

The solar storm in May that produced a beautiful aurora borealis as far south as Mallorca, Spain, also stopped GNSS-based precision agriculture for a couple of days. The same month, articles in major U.S. newspapers detailed aspects of a growing confrontation between the United States, Russia and China —vying for dominance in near-Earth space, now part of the military fighting domain — that could lead to far greater disruption. Nearly all satellites are highly vulnerable to cyberattacks, ground- or space-based lasers, high-powered microwaves, the debris field from a destroyed satellite and the radiation produced by a nuclear explosion in space. The last one would disable by far the greatest number of satellites because of its range and because commercial satellites, which constitute more than 90 percent of all satellites in orbit, are not hardened against such radiation.

Matteo Luccio


A May 16 article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Russia Launched Research Spacecraft for Antisatellite Nuclear Weapon Two Years Ago, U.S. Officials Say,” reported that in February 2022, shortly before it invaded Ukraine, Russia launched Cosmos-2553, “designed to test components for a potential antisatellite weapon that would carry a nuclear device.” It linked the launch to a continuing Russian nuclear antisatellite program and said that, if deployed, the weapon “would give Moscow the ability to destroy hundreds of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) with a nuclear blast.”

“The Pentagon,” the article pointed out, “has become increasingly reliant on commercial satellites.” In LEO, it reported, there are almost 6,700 U.S. satellites, while China has 780 and Russia only 149. Therefore, the Russians would have a lot less to lose should they choose to explode a nuclear weapon in LEO.

A May 17 article in The New York Times was titled “New Star Wars Plan: Pentagon Rushes to Counter Threats in Orbit.” The subhead read: “Citing rapid advances by China and Russia, the United States is building an extensive capacity to fight battles in space.” It said that, in a major shift in military operations, the Defense Department “is looking to acquire a new generation of ground- and space-based tools that will allow it to defend its satellite network from attack and, if necessary, to disrupt or disable enemy spacecraft in orbit.” Meanwhile, “both Russia and China have already tested or deployed systems such as ground-based high-energy lasers, antisatellite missiles or maneuverable satellites that could be used to disrupt [U.S.] space assets.”

The decision to strengthen U.S. warfighting capacity in space, it said, is driven mostly by China’s expanding fleet of military tools in space, which threatens to prevent U.S. Navy operations in the Western Pacific. “The Pentagon is separately working to launch a new generation of military satellites that can maneuver, be refueled while in space or have robotic arms that could reach out and grab — and potentially disrupt — an enemy satellite.”

These are all reasons to quickly develop and deploy a wide mix of complementary PNT solutions that would lessen reliance on GNSS satellites and, therefore, make them less of a target.

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.