Russia has warned that it is prepared to obliterate commercial space systems that are being used to aid Ukraine, in a veiled threat to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Over the past year, Mr Musk’s Starlink satellite network has played a critical role in Kyiv’s defence by granting them internet access. This prompted fury from the Kremlin, as a senior official now warns that such commercial space systems could risk becoming legitimate military targets if they continue to work with Ukraine. Senior foreign ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov warned the United Nations against a “worrying trend” developing in space.
Speaking at a meeting of the UN’s committee on disarmament and international security, Mr Vorontsov said: “We would like to specifically stress an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the latest developments in Ukraine.
“Namely, the use by the United States and its allies of civilian, including commercial, infrastructure elements in outer space for military purposes.
“Apparently, these States do not realise that such actions in fact constitute indirect participation in military conflicts. Quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike.
“Western actions needlessly put at risk the sustainability of peaceful space activities, as well as numerous social and economic processes on Earth that affect the well-being of people, first of all in developing countries.
“At the very least, this provocative use of civilian satellites is questionable under the Outer Space Treaty, which only provides for the peaceful use of outer space, and must be strongly condemned by the international community.”
Of all the Western companies aiding Ukraine, Mr Musk and his Starlink satellites are likely to anger Russia the most, as over the past year the SpaceX CEO handed Ukraine more than 10,000 dish antennas since the start of Putin’s invasion.
These satellites have been deployed in settings from governmental buildings, hospitals and schools — to helping to control drones used to combat the invading Russian forces.
Such if Putin were to attack SpaceX satellites, it would signal a sharp escalation of tension between Russia and the US, as no country has ever carried out a missile strike against an enemy satellite.
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Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s Air and Space Law program said: “This threat has brought us to a brink that we’ve never been to before. There’s always been a sense that this could happen, but never has somebody actually said that they might do that out loud.”
Aside from Starlink, commercial satellite imagery firms such as Planet, Maxar and BlackSky have also played a crucial role in the war effort against Russia, providing intelligence by taking pictures of the conflict from above and sharing them openly.
For example, images by Planet Labs in early August showed that a Ukrainian attack on a Russian military base in Crimea caused more damage than Russia had suggested in public reports.
Iridium chief executive Matt Desch said: “It’s really irresponsible to talk about shooting anything down in space for any reason. Space has gotten to be quite messy. If somebody starts shooting satellites in space, I’d imagine it would quickly make space unusable.”
Ms Hanlon warned that under the laws of armed conflict if Russia were to strike a private US company’s satellite, it could be regarded as an act of war that could justify a US response.
On Thursday, White House spokesman John Kirby said that any attack on US infrastructure would be met with a response, however, he gave no details on that remark.
Brian Weeden, a space policy analyst at the Secure World Foundation: “The legal aspects of all this are really murky at the moment. We don’t have any examples of wartime uses of force against satellites – there’s really nothing to go off of.”
Russia previously put the West on high alert after it used an anti-satellite missile to blow up one of its own satellites in an event known as an ASAT test late last year.
It caused thousands of pieces of space debris to fly towards the international space station, forcing astronauts to duck for cover in their spacecraft over fears the space junk would smash into them.