A new space base will be built in Britain to monitor the “irresponsible and reckless” threats to satellites by Russia and China, the head of the Royal Air Force has said.
The Deep-Space Advanced Radar Capability (Darc) will be located either in southern England or Scotland.
The site will work with identical facilities in Texas and Australia to cover the entire world up to 36,000km (22,000 miles) above the Earth, watching for incoming nuclear missiles or space debris on collision courses with satellites.
The system will also be used to monitor aggressive behaviour that threatens space-based assets.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the Chief of the Air Staff, says it is a national priority to understand what is going on in space. He warned of “irresponsible and reckless testing by Russia and China” of anti-satellite weapons.
Speaking to The Telegraph in Los Angeles, having visited the US Space and Missile Systems Centre, the defence chief said “we don’t have the full picture” of what was happening in space.
“The opportunity with Darc is to collaborate with the US and Australia,” he said. “There’s no point us replicating what the US is doing. The trick for us is to find areas where our technology and systems add capabilities other allies don’t have.”
Each Darc radar field will be made up of about 16 separate transmit and receive antennas. They will be able to spot objects as small as a football.
Mr Wallace talks with Lt Gen John Thompson (right)
Credit: James Breeden for The Telegraph
Lieutenant Colonel Jack Walker, of the US Space Force’s special programmes directorate, said: “If anything poses a threat, we want to track it.”
He added that the British field, the location of which has yet to be decided, will have about six transmitters and 10 receiver dishes, each 15m (49ft) in diameter. The whole site will be approximately one square kilometre.
The Darc system will complement the existing facility at RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors, built in 1963, which can see up to 2,000km (1,243 miles) above the planet.
The first Darc site will be built by 2025, with all three being completed within three years.
There are 30,000 objects in space orbiting Earth, big enough to cause catastrophic damage to satellites. Ground-based radars are currently the best way to detect and track them.
Britain’s geographic location in the northern hemisphere and close to Russia, the West’s primary ballistic missile threat, mean it is ideally suited to hosting such facilities.
“Real estate is valuable,” said Dr Stephen Pluntze, deputy director of the Chief Partnership Office in the US Space and Missile Centre, adding: “Ground is a big part of space.”
Officials in the US and UK are increasingly concerned about so-called “orbital threats”, satellites that can manoeuvre near to other spacecraft and inflict damage.
Mr Wallace during a presentation at the US Space and Missile Systems Centre
Credit: James Breeden for The Telegraph
Both China and Russia are actively developing and deploying sophisticated satellite inspection and repair capabilities which could easily be used to tamper with foreign satellites.
The Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm, could be used to grapple other orbiting spacecraft.
Russia has developed the COSMOS 2504 and 2535 space vehicles, prototype anti-satellite weapons that target objects in low earth orbit (99 miles-1,243 miles).
The Nudol, a Russian mobile ground-based missile designed to destroy satellites in low earth orbit, is still being tested.
However, China conducted a successful test of a similar weapon in 2007 against one of their own satellites, resulting in more debris being blasted into orbit.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston said there was a “particular concern” over communications satellites in geostationary orbit.
“There’s a Russian satellite clearly intelligence-gathering in the geostationary region,” he said. “It keeps moving to be in very close proximity to our satellites. We know bad things are happening.”