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Massachusetts Institute of Technology • Program in Science, Technology and Society

Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group

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Analyzing the Capabilities and Development of Foreign Space Programs

Principal Researchers: Geoff Forden, Ted Postol, Subrata Ghoshroy

As a group, we have a common interest in the development of space programs in different countries.  While our different research interests have taken us in different directions, we have, as a group, developed contacts in the space agencies in Europe, Russia, China, and India.  Some of our research topics are listed below.

Iran’s Space Launcher Development Program
Iranian Safir

Iran has in recent years announced that it is developing a capability to put a satellite into orbit.  This of course has created considerable concern in Western capitals that this same technology could be used to launch nuclear warheads. (See our discussion of how to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis here.)  The launch of a Safir rocket on 17 August 2008, together with photographs of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Iranian Space Center, allows us to evaluate the technological path Iran is following in this development program.  It is clear that Iran has jumped off the path of enlarging or “improving” SCUD technology.  In particular, there are a number of important innovations Iran has made:

1) using cluster of engines for second stage using a SINGLE TURBOPUMP—both are significant advances in technology all by themselves.  The static test version shows two engines but it makes more sense for them to use 4 during the actual flight.  It also looks like the turbopump can be used to facilitate staging by providing a small amount of acceleration during the second stage ignition.

2) looks like it uses gimbaled engines (see hydraulic jack) for thrust vector control—another significant advance in technology, and the thing that probably failed during the test flight.

3) uses “new” engines (not SCUD or SA-2)—speculation: why develop a new engine for SCUD fuel?  It makes more sense to develop engines for a more powerful fuel such as UDMH.

A preliminary analysis of the two stage Safir rocket can be found here: Safir—Iran Jumps Off the SCUD Bandwagon.


Analysis of the Chinese Anti-Satellite Weapon Test

Geoff Forden


At 22:26 GMT, 11 January 2007, China slammed a kill vehicle into one of its dead metrological satellites, proving to the world that they were part of the small but unfortunately growing club of countries that can accomplish the difficult task of hypervelocity interceptions in space.  As a signal to the world, this test highlighted both China’s technological prowess and the fact that China will not quietly stand by while the United States tries to expand its influence in the region with new measures such as the US-India nuclear deal.  We have analyzed the orbits of the debris from this interception and from that put limits on the properties of the interceptor.  We find that not only can China threaten low Earth orbit satellites, but, by mounting the same interceptor on one of its rockets capable of lofting a satellite into geostationary orbit, all of the US communications satellites.

Click here to download a copy of a technical analysis of the recent test.

Click here to link to Google Earth Chinese ASAT test.

Click here to listen to Geoff Forden on CBC's "The Current" discuss the Chinese ASAT test


China's ASAT: No Space Age Perl Harbor

Geoff Forden

China's nascent space weapons capability presents a challenge to the US dominance of space.  But how should we respond? Should we develop space defenses?  Or should we try to diplomatically limit the development of these weapons?  These question are addressed in an analysis by Geoffrey Forden posted on Wired’s defense blog, DANGER ROOM on the one year anniversary of China’s ASAT test.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Strategic Capabilities and Implications of China’s Navigation Satellites

Geoff Forden


missile launch
CAPTION A warhead, launched from China and on route to Washington, D.C., remains in contact with all three Chinese navigation satellites (Beidou 1A, Beidou 1B, and Beidou 1C) for most of its trajectory.  This image shows the view looking back from the warhead


On the 27th of October, 2005, the first Iranian satellite (the Sinah-1, in a sun-synchronous orbit with an altitude of approximately 700 km) was launched aboard a Russian rocket.  Clearly, more and more countries are attempting to join the Space-faring club.  Our group uses publicly available information (such as the satellite’s orbital parameters) to estimate the technical capabilities of these foreign satellites and from that infer their security implications.  Previous studies have resulted in an understanding of the strategic implications of China’s indigenous navigation satellites and estimates for the current state of Russia’s space-based early-warning satellites.

With the launch of the Bei Dou 1C satellite on 24 May 2003, China claims to have completed its constellation of three navigational satellites.  This system is very different from the US navigation satellite system (GPS/NAVSTAR), the Russian GLONAS constellation and the planned European Galileo system. With only three satellites, and in geostationary orbit, the Chinese system can only be used on a regional basis as opposed to the global functionality of the others. Furthermore, assuming it uses the same operational principles as the other navigational systems - inferring the position of an operator by measuring the distance from a set of satellites - it appears to have only limited utility for navigation of terrestrial users.
Since 1995, the constellation of Russian early-warning satellites has deteriorated significantly. Russia had a full complement of those satellites during the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident. Since then, Russia has not replaced satellites often enough to maintain complete 24-hour coverage. In fact, assuming every satellite—even those that have drifted far from their optimal orbits—is still working, Russian coverage has dropped to less than 17 hours per day. In reality, the coverage is probably considerably less. After all, Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, went to considerable effort to almost daily realign their early-warning satellites into a very precise formation to maintain the best surveillance of U.S. nuclear forces. Today, the satellites have been allowed to drift far from those optimal orbits, presumably because they no longer function.

Orbital Debris: Drafting, Negotiating, Implementing a Convention

Thierry Senechal

It is time to recognize that while space may be infinite, Earth orbital space is a finite natural resource that must be managed properly. The problem we face with space pollution is complex and serious. The space treaties and conventions are not sufficient. They were drafted at the time of space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, they fail to account for rapid changes in the field, especially the increasing commercial activity. Moreover, the existing mitigation guidelines remain voluntary and are not legally binding under international law. As a result, space debris tends to accumulate and remains in orbit for a long period of time.

A space debris convention is thus warranted. The proposed international convention would have the following objectives: 1) Implement an international and independent tracking and cataloguing system for space debris; 2) Adopt enforceable space debris mitigation and disposal guidelines; 3)
Enforce a space preservation provision for protecting the most vulnerable outer space regions and; 4) Define a space debris compensation and dispute settlement mechanism. The convention must bring all together policy-makers and the civil society for addressing this problem; it is also time for the space industry to play its corporate social responsibility and to actively seek to participate to the drafting and implementing of the convention.

More than ever, the space debris problem is hindering space commerce, space tourism, the scientific exploration of space, the use of raw materials from space, and even distant plans for the future settlement of space. The possibility of great harm posed by debris should bring all nations and stakeholders together to find the most appropriate solutions.


The Military Capabilities and Implications of China’s Indigenous Satellite-based Navigation System, Geoff Forden, Science and Global Security, Vol. 12, no. 3, 2004, pp. 219-250.

China’s Satellite-Based Navigation System: Implications for Conventional and Strategic Forces, Geoff Forden, Breakthroughs, Vol. XIII, no. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 8-13.

Strategic Uses for China’s Bei Dou Satellite System, Geoff Forden, Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 2003, pp. 26-31.

Russia’s Early Warning System: Which Came First, Technology or Doctrine?, Geoff Forden, Breakthroughs, Vol. X, no. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 9-16.

Reducing a Common Danger: Improving Russia’s Early-Warning System, Geoff Forden, CATO Policy Analysis Paper # 399, 3 May 2001


Strategic Implications of China’s Space-Based Navigation System, Geoff Forden, Technical Working Group Seminar Series, MIT, 25 September 2003

See our work on anti-satellite weapons here.

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Last modified:
30 April 2009