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Orbital missile platforms?
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Hello! I'm not sure if this belongs in your missiles/munitions section or this one, so I apologize if I'm making a mistake!

My curiosity has led me to inquire about the subject of theoretical weapon platforms designed for earth orbit, i.e. an orbiting missile silo/satellite delivery system for space-to-earth missiles. I'm aware of other orbital weapon types such as the infamous Star Wars program of the Reagan era which was primarily an anti-missile system, but I'm specifically speaking about missile systems themselves, of a similar nature.

This has been a common theme of many cold war era movies and literature, which makes me wonder if art has imitated in reality in some way. Has such a program actually existed?

Thanks!



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No for several reasons....

1.  Both the Outer Space Treaty and SALT II/START treaties prohibit putting WMDs in space

2. the cost would be insane. If the US for example were to somehow be able to afford development of the system you still have to account for the cost of the individual missiles, the platform itself, and the delivery system of each items into earth's orbit, then the cost of maintaining the system and preventing unwanted reentry.

3. it's redundant. ICBMs suffice in their ability for reaching targets around the globe, making a whole launching system from space unnecessary.

4. Reduced secrecy... you would see a space based launch for miles. There are a crapton of telescopes aimed at the sky all the time even since the cold war, the missiles would be seen and intercepted long before they would if they were surface launched (like from a sub) especially from a suspicious satellite with rocket shaped thingies strapped to it lmao.

5. Response time is dramatically reduced. lets say you were ordered the immediate launch of a missile towards a specific target on the surface, which system would do the job faster? A space platform that could take hours to orient into an effective range or a surface location that is already on standby?

6. The heat of reentry would destroy the missile before it reaches its target, you would need o develop a kind of heat shielding that would protect it long enough to reach the surface, which would be yet another added expense in which case i redirect you to to point no 2. ICBMs are designed for a low orbit of only 700+ miles above the earth as they travel to their targets in a parabolic arc and at a significantly lower speed than a freefalling extraterrestrial object. An orbital space platform would need to orbit at a standard height of like 20,000+ miles like an ordinary satellite, imposing a much higher velocity that would destroy standard heat shielding of most ballistic missiles and compromising the weapon.

Basic physics.



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Leela25 wrote:

5. Response time is dramatically reduced. lets say you were ordered the immediate launch of a missile towards a specific target on the surface, which system would do the job faster? A space platform that could take hours to orient into an effective range or a surface location that is already on standby?


 Unless its already in a geostationary orbit near a predetermined target zone.

Also on your "satellite with rocket shaped things strapped to it" quip, remember the movie Space Cowboys? What if the platform was disguised as a regular satellite?



-- Edited by Pepper on Tuesday 24th of March 2020 06:08:48 PM

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Greetings. To put aside the political and moral issues with a space launcher, I will focus on Leela25's explanation of the physics. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for standard ICBM heat shielding to withstand high velocity re-entry, as modern RV/MIRVs tend to utilize carbon-epoxy composite material (earlier types used copper shielding), which should sustain the payload long enough for reaching the target when launched at a reduced orbital distance. The platform doesn't necessarily have to conform to such a high orbit for this purpose, as I believe just under a thousand miles would sustain a stable orbit.



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Pepper wrote:
Leela25 wrote:

5. Response time is dramatically reduced. lets say you were ordered the immediate launch of a missile towards a specific target on the surface, which system would do the job faster? A space platform that could take hours to orient into an effective range or a surface location that is already on standby?


 Unless its already in a geostationary orbit near a predetermined target zone.

Also on your "satellite with rocket shaped things strapped to it" quip, remember the movie Space Cowboys? What if the platform was disguised as a regular satellite?


 We're heading into highly speculative territory now since we cant prove for certain if such treaty violations actually existed at some point. But its sure fun fantasy sci-fi to mull over. :P

Also a theoretical launch platform wouldn't have to actually be over the target area to be in effective range. ICBMs don't after all (regardless of travel distance and speed). If it were on the complete opposite side of the planet that would be another story.

 

wham1 wrote:

Greetings. To put aside the political and moral issues with a space launcher, I will focus on Leela25's explanation of the physics. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for standard ICBM heat shielding to withstand high velocity re-entry, as modern RV/MIRVs tend to utilize carbon-epoxy composite material (earlier types used copper shielding), which should sustain the payload long enough for reaching the target when launched at a reduced orbital distance. The platform doesn't necessarily have to conform to such a high orbit for this purpose, as I believe just under a thousand miles would sustain a stable orbit.


 Hai welcome :)

Okay here's the problem with a low earth orbit like this... most satellites operate effectively at higher GSO and GEO to be less susceptible to orbital decay from exospheric drag and to have a wider field of view. LEO is a high-maintenance placement more appropriate for communication and research purposes (space station, comm sats, etc) it needs resources to constantly maintain its orbit. Also spy satellites which sucha  facade would already attract attention to which an investigation might reveal it to actually be an orbiting missile platform and there goes your super secret launch platform lol. Not to mention you have more limited communication coverage between the platform and the surface at this altitude which means you'd need relays at intervals also in relative orbit, but such an array would also attract suspicion (though i guess this depends on the orbital positioning its designed for)

Lets go back to the higher orbit and entertain another scenario... say we developed a missile that could deliver its payload at this level of reentry, the only way this could work with modern heat shielding is if it were designed like cruise missile but with the flight characteristics of a manned reentry vehicle. It needs to have a controlled descent which introduces a whle new complexity to such a weapon which means more munnies. Its just not worth it in the long run since ICBMs are more effective in their design.



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Leela25 wrote:
Pepper wrote:
Leela25 wrote:

5. Response time is dramatically reduced. lets say you were ordered the immediate launch of a missile towards a specific target on the surface, which system would do the job faster? A space platform that could take hours to orient into an effective range or a surface location that is already on standby?


 Unless its already in a geostationary orbit near a predetermined target zone.

Also on your "satellite with rocket shaped things strapped to it" quip, remember the movie Space Cowboys? What if the platform was disguised as a regular satellite?


 We're heading into highly speculative territory now since we cant prove for certain if such treaty violations actually existed at some point. But its sure fun fantasy sci-fi to mull over. :P

Also a theoretical launch platform wouldn't have to actually be over the target area to be in effective range. ICBMs don't after all (regardless of travel distance and speed). If it were on the complete opposite side of the planet that would be another story.


 The whole idea of orbiting missile platforms is speculative anyway so why not indulge a bit, haha.

Another possibility to cut cost is retrofitting old communication satellites or space telescopes so that they are actually hiding nukes in them. Or a space station disguised as a research station like the ISS? Lots of possibilities. There were a ton of space weapon ideas during the cold war that were taken seriously, before the space treaties squashed them.



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They would still be burdened with the same issues. Plus a space station would be even more expensive than retrofitting a comm sat.

 

Pepper wrote:
There were a ton of space weapon ideas during the cold war that were taken seriously, before the space treaties squashed them.

 Even after the treaties were put into place there were space weapon programmes that were meant to circumvent the no WMDs in space rule. Even before so, during the war the Nazis proposed a giant space mirror to weaponize the sun (this was parodied in Futurama lol).

One cold war exampl I remember, and thats closest to an orbital launch platform was Project Thor (aka Rods from God) which was a kinetic bombardment platform that launches telephone pole-sized tungsten rods from orbit onto the surface target. Sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle came up with the idea when he worked for Boeing in the 50s. Im not sure if this became an active programme but similar kinetic weapon research has been done all the way into the early 2000s (and probably still to this day)

The bottom line is that orbital bombardment with nuclear capable weapons is a concept more appropriate for in-atmosphere platforms like bomber aircraft not something all the way out in space.



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Wow I did not expect so many responses already. :)

Granted I had thought about the outer space treaty before starting this topic but the physics and logistical problems were not something I had considered. Thank you for your input! Leela25, I'm fascinated by "Rods From God/Project Thor" Do you have any more information about this project?

Thanks again!



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Leela25 wrote:

Even after the treaties were put into place there were space weapon programmes that were meant to circumvent the no WMDs in space rule. Even before so, during the war the Nazis proposed a giant space mirror to weaponize the sun (this was parodied in Futurama lol).

One cold war exampl I remember, and thats closest to an orbital launch platform was Project Thor (aka Rods from God) which was a kinetic bombardment platform that launches telephone pole-sized tungsten rods from orbit onto the surface target. Sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle came up with the idea when he worked for Boeing in the 50s. Im not sure if this became an active programme but similar kinetic weapon research has been done all the way into the early 2000s (and probably still to this day)


 Don't forget the moon base proposals. Some of those entailed putting missile silos under the lunar surface. I think that was back in the late 50s, before the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was signed.

I have another what-if scenario to challenge the WMD prohibition: a space platform designed to destroy extra terrestrial objects, essentially an anti-asteroid system using nuclear armament or other high-yield weapons? Like the Sean Connery movie Meteor.



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Pepper wrote:
Leela25 wrote:

Even after the treaties were put into place there were space weapon programmes that were meant to circumvent the no WMDs in space rule. Even before so, during the war the Nazis proposed a giant space mirror to weaponize the sun (this was parodied in Futurama lol).

One cold war exampl I remember, and thats closest to an orbital launch platform was Project Thor (aka Rods from God) which was a kinetic bombardment platform that launches telephone pole-sized tungsten rods from orbit onto the surface target. Sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle came up with the idea when he worked for Boeing in the 50s. Im not sure if this became an active programme but similar kinetic weapon research has been done all the way into the early 2000s (and probably still to this day)


 Don't forget the moon base proposals. Some of those entailed putting missile silos under the lunar surface. I think that was back in the late 50s, before the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was signed.

I have another what-if scenario to challenge the WMD prohibition: a space platform designed to destroy extra terrestrial objects, essentially an anti-asteroid system using nuclear armament or other high-yield weapons? Like the Sean Connery movie Meteor.


 *sigh* Once again NO NUKES IN SPACE, lmao. Once you put a nuclear capable device in orbit it has the potential to be weaponized and therefor a violation of the space treaties. Doesnt matter if it was for the noble purpose of defending earth against extraterrestrial threats like a random chunk of rock on a collision course, if its a WMD in nature it doesnt belong up there. And Im using the term "WMD" in the strict origin of its meaning, not the common overhype about highly destructive weaponry that are not of nuclear/biological/chemical in nature. AFAIK things like mass drivers/railguns and kinetic weapons don't count as they are not NBC types. Unfortunately no real world examples have been tested (that we know of!!) regarding orbital bombardment platforms to warrant evaluation of the WMD classification or not.

Besides using nukes to fend off asteroids and other such objects in space is such a tired hollywood cliche its not even funny. :P

First of all youre dealing with objects of varying size...car sized to entire countries possibly (the latter would be extinction class by NASA standards... the largest known asteroid is Ceres measuring 580 miles (933 km) in diameter). Smaller types could probably be blown up by a nuke, but it wouldnt matter if you fired one nuke or a thousand (or planted one inside Armageddon style) it wouldnt obliterate the object. Instead it would either just knock a chunk or multiple chunks off the surface or fragment it into multiple pieces that would rain onto the earth like a shotgun blast. You have to remember that were dealing with a vacuum environment with zero atmosphere... a nuclear weapon gets its destructive power from being in earth's atmosphere.

More effective alternatives would be using deflective methods such as kinetic impact projectiles, retro rockets or a whole spacecraft tow system, or solar sails to carry it away via solar winds. There was also an idea to use a laser to fry away pieces of an asteroid away but this requires knowledge of the asteroid's density which varies a bit too much. Technically a nuke would be the most powerful deflectiv method but youre still faced with the possibility of fragmentation. Even non nuke kinetic weapons wuold pose the same risk. Best to seek out non-destructive alternatives. :P

As far as moon base proposals go, I do know of an old Boeing proposal for a military lunar base that couldve potentially housed missiles. I thnk it was a part of the SR-192 Lunar Strategic System study. It was one of a crapton of lunar militarization studies that traced their origins to the three "Systems Requirement" studies comissioned by the Air Force Ballistic Missiles Division of LA to evaluate the strategic value of manned spaceflight, namely SR-181 Strategic Earth System Study (aka the global surveillance system), SR-182 Strategic Interplanetary Study, and SR-183 Lunar Observatory Study... AFAIK these also included provisions for nuclear armament of varying types. A majority of these studies have been lost or only specific parts declassified for public release so not many details are known.

Project Horizon is the most well-known lunar military outpost project (which also had scientific purposes)....but i dont think they had missile silos in mind. The only defenses planned for it were Davy Crocketts and directional mines like claymores for invading space troops.

jumpdriver48 wrote:

Wow I did not expect so many responses already. :)

Granted I had thought about the outer space treaty before starting this topic but the physics and logistical problems were not something I had considered. Thank you for your input! Leela25, I'm fascinated by "Rods From God/Project Thor" Do you have any more information about this project?

Thanks again!


 Its a fairly well known concept if one were to google it but Im happy to go into details since I have so much time on my hands nowadays (coronavirus quarantine and all XD )

Basically the story goes that while Pournelle was workong at Boeing's operations research to develop the Thoth missile guidance system he had the idea of using it for a hypothetical launch platform from earth's orbit but using kinetic projectiles instead of missiles (though this was before the space treaty was put into effect banning WMDs). The "Rods from God" name stuck to the concept later on and even Pournele was puzzled to where it came from lol, as originally it was just conceived as "Project Thor".

Like i said it was a kinitec weapon platform designed to be in LEO to send tungsten rods down to the surface, using kinetic energy for its destructive power instead of explosives. Since the rods would be traveling at a velocity of about mach 10 they would theoretically have the same destructive force of a bunker buster type munition. At such a low yield its more cost effective to just use bunker busters via aircraft :P

Another problem is that you cant just simply drop a kinetic projectile from orbit, even at LEO it needs to be propelled towards earth AND have a controlled descent, otherwise drag and other factors could hinder its effectiveness at actually hitting the target area let alone destroying its target. It could retain enough velocity in the atmosphere with its elongated rod shape but it needs to actually get there first. Both a hypothetical delivery system and the platform itself would be suuuuper expensive especially since its meant to be at LEO instead of higher GSO/GEO.



-- Edited by Leela25 on Thursday 26th of March 2020 09:11:07 PM

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I imagine missiles from the moon would take even longer to reach earth than on an orbiting bombardment platform. Response time almost nonexistent especially relying on the moon's orbit relative to the target LOL.

Project Thor is like Star Wars in that they're among pretty neat concepts that like to get re-discovered by the media and Hollywood now and then, sometimes passed on as a new concept for space defenses. It seems to be a common trend now with contemporary politics.



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No doubt. IMO lunar bases should be limited to science , military application is somewhat impractical. Or it could be a checkpoint in long distance spaceflight e.g a manned mission to Mars... a launch platform for a spacecraft as like an additional stage for interplanetary missions. IDK.



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This sort of reminds me of that proposal to build a real life death star back in 2012. The govt's response was as one would expect.smile

Military bases in space could actually serve a practical purpose if we actually had a military presence in space to begin with. Leela25, your idea for a "checkpoint"works in this scenario, since it could act as a refueling/resupply station for friendly spacecraft or early warning/defense station for invading spacecraft. We are not this far ahead yet of course, but it's not an unrealistic scenario. For this day and age I agree with the limitation to research purposes. The idea for the moon being used as an additional "stage" in a manned flight to mars is a good idea, and I believe it was actually considered. However it would be an endeavor in itself to establish a facility on the moon that could provide the additional step in travel, say manufacture of spacecraft locally plus mining resources from the lunar surface. It would not be an easy feat by any means.



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inb4 space force :P



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Well yes we have a Space Force now but that doesn't necessarily mean we have a presence in space. We don't have troops, spacecraft or any operations there currently. But we might some day, which creates the issue of needing some kind of military outposts and support bases. The moon is a good start.



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I wasn't arguing if there was military presence in space or not with that comment i was just being silly.

Anyway this talk about modern or future lunar military bases is kind of an unproductive tangent considering the space treaty forbids putting any there.



-- Edited by Leela25 on Wednesday 1st of April 2020 04:24:42 PM

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This CGI rendering of a rods from God satellite system was featured on the cover of Popular Science.



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