If you are having a good day then under no circumstances should you read the US Defense Intelligence Agency's Challenges to Security in Space1 (Information cutoff date, January 2019) linked in Axios' The rise of military space powers

From page 10:

Orbital Threats

Orbital Threats: Orbital or space-based systems are satellites that can deliver temporary or permanent effects against other spacecraft. These systems could include payloads such as kinetic kill vehicles, radiofrequency jammers, lasers, chemical sprayers, high-power microwaves, and robotic mechanisms. Some of these systems, such as robotic technology for satellite servicing and repair and debris removal, have peaceful uses but can also be used for military purposes.

Question: How many of these six military "orbital threat" techniques have been demonstrated in a (more or less) publicly recognized way? Here "more or less" means the owner of the technology does not have to acknowledge it, there just needs to be some publicly available fairly reputable source of information that this has taken place. The test could be under a "dual use" guise; for example a Chemical Sprayer weapon could be a robotic cubesat innocently spraying Windex® (or generic equivalent) rather than a fogging agent on a lens or window.

1and also don't read Space Threat Assessment 2020

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not possibly related in any way: Rocket Lab investigates rocket failure $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 23, 2021 at 3:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ChrisB.Behrens I asked How vulnerable could space launch vehicles be to a “lone gunman”? September 2, 2016 and on October 2 (one month later): So, um, SpaceX is looking for a sniper that shot the rocket, maybe from a nest at top of competitor's building.. Space is hard; things fail and/or blow up all the time. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 23, 2021 at 6:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think laser and chemical are the only two that I haven't heard of. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2021 at 7:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One ephemeral threat I'm surprised I haven't seen is the old "you make a better door than a window" trick -- just positioning between a satellite and its target to deny access on a temporary basis. $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    May 24, 2021 at 13:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Laser and mechanical ring bells for me. Mechanical because Northrop Grumman's MEV-1 and MEV-2 have demonstrated (and are still doing so) approaching, docking, and therefore taking control of, another satellite and then take it somewhere else. Publically this is extending the life of an otherwise 'dead' satellite (due to expended fuel). Laser rings a bell because of tests to optically blind satellites. I'm pretty sure both major agencies were testing that in orbit, i have a memory of reading about it, but I have no sources to link to. Ground based tests, for that purpose, tested definitely. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2021 at 11:28

2 Answers 2


robotic mechanisms

Further to NG's MEV-1 and MEV-2 projects already mentioned, China joined this club in 2021-22.

Although termed "space debris mitigation" by the PRC, its uses otherwise, just like for MEV-1 and -2, are obvious.


enter image description here

China’s Shijian-21 towed dead satellite to a high graveyard orbit

China’s Shijian-21 space debris mitigation satellite has docked with a defunct Chinese satellite to drastically alter its geostationary orbit, demonstrating capabilities only previously exhibited by the United States.

In late December (2021), Shijian-21 approached the defunct Beidou-2 G2 navigation satellite, matching its orbit and rendezvousing with, and eventually docking with the spacecraft

Shijian-21 performed a large burn Jan.22, taking the Beidou-2 G2 satellite 3,000 kilometers above the GEO belt.

The docking and subsequent engine burn — which was unusually large, taking it beyond the usual “graveyard” orbit of 300 kilometers above GEO

“You could look at China working to develop the capability to remove inactive satellites on orbit as a way in which it is being a responsible space actor and cleaning up debris that it caused. Or you could use the lens that a lot of the US-based China watchers use and say that this could indicate that China is developing an on-orbit offensive capability.”

USA 270, Chinese Shiyan-12 encounter

“What we’re showing here is counterspace technology. So, they’re kind of employing a tactic, technique [and] procedure, or TTP, as it’s known by the U.S. Department of Defense, and are showing that they’ve got the exquisite, timely and responsive SSA to understand events that are unfolding.”

The closest approach between the U.S. and one of the Chinese satellites was around 73 kilometers, according to COMSPOC. Not close enough to threaten a potential collision, but enough for one party to decide if it wanted to leave the vicinity to avoid potential intelligence gathering or other activities by the other.


In 2021 Astroscale did a tech demo in space of a magnetic capture and release using a CubeSat as a target.

enter image description here


We are excited to announce that ... our #ELSAd spacecraft successfully demonstrated repeated magnetic captures in orbit today!

The ELSA-d spacecraft of Japan-based startup Astroscale has successfully captured a simulated piece of space junk, completing the first phase of a demonstration mission that could pave the way for a less cluttered future in orbit.


Other methods, from the Soviet era:


Other satellite defense techniques studied by TashKBM were electronic countermeasures, measures to reduce the radar cross-section of satellites, the deployment of decoys, the use of aerosol particles to obscure satellites from attacking vehicles and what are described as “heat screens.”

enter image description here

Few details have been revealed about the Nauka experiments related to satellite defense. Androsov mentions tests of “space-to-space projectiles,” “transformable and inflatable structures,” as well as radar-absorbing materials.

plasma stealth technology.

Just like the plasma that naturally builds around a spacecraft during re-entry can cause communication blackouts, artificially created plasma clouds can theoretically absorb radar waves aimed at satellites in orbit. The principle was tested using so-called magneto plasma dynamic (MPD) engines, which expel plasma at very high speeds

Soviet-era publications had already described one such plasma engine having flown on Cosmos-728 in April 1975 and later publications identified another one carried by Cosmos-780 in November/December 1975.

Mounted on the forward end of the Nauka modules, the 2.5-kilowatt MPD engines were fueled by potassium and used for experiments called Kren (“roll”), at least one purpose of which was to test the stealthy effect of plasma clouds.

Testing plasma stealth technology on Soyuz

A similar test of plasma stealth technology was conducted in 1976 on an uncrewed Soyuz spacecraft

Fed by lithium, the 17-kilowattengine was successfully ignited on December 13, ejecting ions at a speed of up to 60 kilometers per second. According to Androsov, the resulting plasma cloud made the vehicle temporarily disappear from radar screens, but the 2012 article says it also had the unwanted effect that the command to shut down the engine did not immediately reach the vehicle, leaving little propellant and battery power for a second burn that turned out to be far less effective.

Istrebitel Sputnikov

explosive charges were mounted on short booms extending from either side of the interceptor satellite. The Soviet Union launched about 20 interceptors under the IS program between 1968 and 1982, with several of them successfully destroying specially launched target satellites.

enter image description here

14K168 Burevestnik (2011)

is an umbrella name for an ASAT program that includes both space-based and non-space-based elements

a space-based system that itself seems to have two components (Burevestnik-M and Burevestnik-KA-M)




The obvious answer: Kinetic Kill(ASAT). China, the US (and others) have demonstrated their capabilities to do this in real (the DIA report mentioned in the question discussed this). Although in these so-called "experiments", the exercise was to destroy one's own satellite with a missile (not sat-vs-sat as implied by the extracted illustration), the distinction between a missile, a rocket or a satellite used as a weapon is tenuous, the main difficulty being to predict exactly the trajectory of the target (assuming it does not have maneuverability). Beside the madness of such a move (a clear declaration of war), the environmental impact would be deleterious to mankind (the so-called "Kessler syndrome" popularized by the movie Gravity).

So, in most eventuality, to neutralize an opponent's space asset, w/o raising suspicion and worldwide condemnation, some more discrete techniques are needed. Spraying chemicals is rather a joke, unless you know how to navigate (quickly?) your little spraying can close to you opponent's asset w/o raising suspicion. A better idea, if time and patience is on your side, is to neutralize an orbit, or an altitude range: just maneuver your little satellite(s) to the orbit(s) you want to neutralize, then pretend to inadvertently 'lose' some parts there and let the Kessler syndrome do its work. I would call this "dropping nails on a highway". It won't work well for higher orbits.

Anyway, this question leads me to advocate for some form of binding international law quickly to protect our Near-Earth space before it is too late. Today the space-capable nations are playing with fire and it is jungle's law.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Were those kinetic kills from satellites, as the question asks, or by earth based missiles (China 2007)? $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    May 23, 2021 at 10:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Stack Exchange! In addition to that, "Just Google the term 'ASAT test'" is not a proper Stack Exchange answer. You need to google yourself and cite and quote the sources you've found. You can have a look around at other answers in the site to see how this is standard, or even see the amount of work I put in to supporting the question with sources. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 23, 2021 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred, everything man-made that goes to space is "from the ground". So, the distinction between a missile and a satellite is hard to understand for me. The initial question, to my understanding is just a threat to a space asset. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    May 23, 2021 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @NgPh the question asks about threats from orbit; orbital threats. "Orbital or space-based systems are satellites that can..." $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 23, 2021 at 15:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.