Hypersonic Atmospheric Reentry Deceleration Experiment (HARD-E); Space as a New Warfighting Domain: How Kinetic Anti-Satellite Weapons Complicate Treaties and Lead to Further Space Debris

Whitmire, Micah, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Goyne, Chris, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Seabrook, Bryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

This portfolio examines two projects conducted during the 2021-2022 academic year. The Capstone group project involved the creation of a proposal which utilized a CubeSat for the collecting and transmission of flight data upon atmospheric reentry at hypersonic speeds. The STS research paper analyzed the history of kinetic anti-satellite weapons and the likelihood of a treaty which bans their implementation within the near future. While these projects do not offer any obvious connections to the other, a launch of the CubeSat which achieves all proposed mission requirements could present a better understanding of hypersonic flight conditions. This information would allow kinetic ASAT engineers the opportunity to ensure their technology reaches maximum efficiency in terms of thermal protections, mass, energy, cost, etc. Engineers do not want their equipment to be heavier or more expensive than necessary, so access to trusted hypersonic flight conditions would be a huge development.

The Capstone project seeks to assess the feasibility of using a CubeSat to study the deceleration of the spacecraft at hypersonic speeds and collect data that will be transmitted to engineers and scientists studying hypersonic flight. Hypersonic flight, defined as flight with Mach numbers above five (meaning five times the speed of sound), contains significant challenges with regards to thermal management, maneuverability, and communications (Ambrose & Greene, 2019). Hypersonic flows are most often encountered during atmospheric reentry, where the spacecraft is constantly decelerating from speeds as high as Mach 25 (Glenn Research Center, 2021). Modeling these flows is important in order to understand pressure and heat distributions for spacecraft during reentry, both of which will affect the design of its heat shielding and aerodynamic components. In addition, motivated by threats from China and Russia, the United States military and Department of Defense have recently begun expanding funding and research into hypersonic flight for use in weapons systems (Sayler, 2021). With hypersonic flight presenting several technical challenges, collecting flight data is invaluable and it garners interest from both government and commercial industries. Testing the hypersonic environment with a CubeSat undergoing atmospheric reentry could significantly reduce the costs associated with ground testing and provide greater accuracy than model-based testing. CubeSat reentry also presents an opportunity to study hypersonic deceleration at the undergraduate level.

Heavy reliance on expensive, high technology space assets has caused space to become a new warfighting domain as countries look towards anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) as a method of militaristic deterrence. The current Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space and prohibits militaristic activities on celestial bodies but does not govern the use of ASATs. Inevitably, without all space powers ratifying a new treaty that prohibits the use of kinetic ASATs, the first-strike capabilities of these weapons could be employed to incapacitate the strategic use of an adversarial country’s satellites. The militaristic use of kinetic ASATs will not only lead to the potential for further conflict but will also produce space debris which hinders space capabilities for all countries. Through scholarly research, an interview with a subject matter expert, and application of the science and technology studies (STS) theories of inherently political technologies and technological fixes, this research paper will investigate the following question: Considering the inevitable space debris which results from the deployment of kinetic anti-satellite weapons, what conditions are necessary for all space-powers to agree on further arrangements which cease the future development, production and stockpiling of kinetic anti-satellite weapons? How likely is this to happen in the foreseeable future? This research paper will provide an insight into future space conflicts with advanced engineering weaponry and the overall militarization of space.

Simultaneously completing the STS Research Paper and group Capstone Project offered a unique perspective regarding the future of hypersonic flight. A deeper understanding of these flight conditions would allow kinetic anti-satellite technologies to further develop and be more widely adopted by additional spacefaring countries. Due to the lack of data that currently exists regarding hypersonic flight, the two projects complemented each other nicely. Difficulty with creating the CubeSat proposal provided insights into some of the struggles that engineers have faced, or currently encounter, when developing kinetic anti-satellite weapons. The Capstone project provided first-hand experience with developing space mission requirements, allowing for a more comprehensive, broader understanding of the history and future of anti-satellite weapons.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Anti-Satellite, Space Weaponization, Space Militarization, Space Debris, Space Arms Control

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Technical Advisor: Chris Goyne
STS Advisor: Bryn Seabrook
Technical Team Members: Emma Auld, Hannah Boyles, Taylor Chandler, Yulie Cheng, Carsten Connolly, Noah Dunn, Joshua Franklin, Samuel Goodkind, Amy Lee, Andrew Metro, Isaac Morrison, Charlie Osborne, Carlos Perez, Vincent Tate

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