Recent Google Earth images reveal construction at what appears to be a sophisticated laser system at a Russian space facility designed to blind adversary satellites.
The construction is taking place at the Russian Ministry of Defense's Krona space facility near Zelenchukskaya in Russia's far southwest, home of the massive RATAN-600 radio telescope. The existence of this new complex was brought to light in an in-depth open source investigation (opens in new tab) published by The Space Review that analyzed public satellite imagery, solicitation documents from Russian industrial contractors and Russian financial documents.
All of these sources lay out the construction of a project named Kalina, described in the financial documentation obtained by The Space Review as a laser system designed for "electro-optical warfare" that can permanently blind adversarial satellites by shining laser pulses so bright they can damage optical sensors. (This is distinctly different from other lasers known as "dazzlers," which are aimed at only temporarily blinding optics systems.)
The new investigation suggests that, despite having been planned many years earlier, Kalina just recently got under construction at an existing space surveillance complex operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense that houses lidar ("light detection and ranging") and radar systems designed to help identify targets for space telescopes.
Russian patent and procurement documents reveal that the Kalina laser facility features a separate tracking system with adaptive optics to help it better mitigate atmospheric disturbance. Along with this system, the laser itself features a transmit-receive system to measure laser light reflected back at it from its target in order to better aim directly at the optical systems on its target object.
The construction of this laser follows a growing trend in terms of anti-satellite activity. General David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the United States Space Force, told The Washington Post in 2021 that U.S. satellites are under attack (opens in new tab) "every single day" and that the United States is "really at a point now where there's a whole host of ways that our space systems can be threatened."
This "shadow war in space," as The Washington Post deemed it, is already playing out. Elon Musk wrote in May 2022 that Russia has been "ramping up their efforts" to jam and disrupt signals from SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites. SpaceX recently sent many Starlink terminals to Ukraine to re-establish communication networks and provide emergency internet services in the nation, which Russia invaded in February.
And Russia may not be the only player looking to disrupt or destroy the services of Starlink satellites, which have been tested for a variety of military applications (opens in new tab). For example, a 2022 paper published in the Chinese journal Modern Defense Technology by researchers at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications Technology called for the development of "a combination of soft and hard kill methods" that could "make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation's operating system." The paper states that, while Starlink "can provide more stable and reliable communication capabilities for the combat units deployed by the US military around the world," the satellites could also be used "to provide high-definition pictures and even live video" for US forces.
It's quite possible that ground-based lasers like Russia's new Kalina system could provide exactly the type of "soft kill" methods described by Chinese researchers — techniques that, unlike "hard kill" methods, don't create risks for everyone else operating in space.
Read The Space Review's story about the Kalina system here (opens in new tab).