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An Eye On The Sky

Published: October 17, 2016

Political Science’s Larry Martinez keeps watching the skies.

Martinez is an expert on the threats posed to satellite systems on which the U.S. and other nations depend. The member of the university since 1988 is at work on a new book titled Cyberwar in Space that asks how the growing faith by the nation’s military establishments in space-based Internet and navigation systems will shift future global strategic conflicts into the stars.

Cyber security has real-world applications every day, Martinez argues.

“The CEO of Target lost his job when millions of customers had their data compromised,” he said. “Everyone who gets a new credit card these days get one with special chips which puts awareness of cyber security right in everyone’s pocket. The developing country of Laos now has its own communication satellite. This indicates the increasing range of nations with satellites and with that, you have an increasing range of real and potential conflicts of interest up there.”

Martinez points to the growing problem of jamming communication satellites.

“Most of it is accidental,” he said. “What you have are ill-trained technicians on the ground with satellite trucks and antennae they are just swishing around. The signal jams other satellites. I remember a negotiation over broadcast rights for a world soccer championship. The loser in the contract negotiations was connected with jamming signals being beamed from places like Eritrea or Iran. Someone’s satellite advantage can be wiped out at very little cost.”

Martinez is writing a paper on how the international community will come up with “rules of the road” to permit greater regulation of who is doing what in space. That regulatory road is getting crowded with the arrival of two future space pioneers located in Long Beach.

“In March of last year, there was a big ceremony at the Long Beach Airport that saw Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic open a rocket factory. Then, just down the road in Hawthorne, there is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) founded in 2002 by Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk that developed the SpaceX Falcon launch vehicles. They’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of satellites,” he said. “The goal would be to extend the Internet into the developing world using these micro-satellites.”

But micro-satellites are not perfect because they have a limited lifespan.

“Eventually, they will run out of fuel,” he explained. “They will break down. They will become debris. That is when they pose a threat to other satellites at the same orbital altitude.

“The same threat exists to GPS,” he added. “The big threat is that a country like North Korea could weaponize space debris. They don’t need a high level of sophistication if all they’re going to do is launch a sack of nails at the same altitude as the GPS satellites. Eventually, the nails will disperse. That is when you would start to see failures in the GPS.”

Martinez received his A.A. from Cuesta College and his bachelor’s, masters and Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara, the latter in 1984. He attended the Universities of Goettingen, Tubingen, Geneva and Cologne. In 1998-99, he was a Fulbright Senior Researcher in Stuttgart, Germany, comparing telecommunications policies in the U.S. and Europe.

Martinez looks at the principle that, under international law, every country has access to space.

“The satellite North Korea is testing is not a just satellite to the military. It represents a nuclear weapon,” he said. “If you are able to put a satellite up into orbit, you can put a nuclear weapon up into orbit. Suddenly, we in the United States are vulnerable to nuclear bombardment from North Korea.”

He relies on international self-interest to unify satellite-dependent nations, recalling that in 2007, the Chinese blew up a weather satellite as a test that created thousands of pieces of debris.

“As the Chinese become more dependent on outer space, it is in their interest to maintain the usability of satellites at those orbital altitudes,”Martinez said. “The issue resembles climate change in that many nations have coasts. All of them are vulnerable to rising sea levels. For outer space, everybody has some degree of vulnerability in outer space.”

But what kind of broom will the international community use to sweep up space?

“It has been suggested a satellite be launched carrying a net,” he said. “Satellites carry residual fuel. If you leave a satellite up in outer space long enough, there is a growing risk that the fuel in the tanks will explode creating thousands of pieces of debris. This happened last year to a retired U.S. weather satellite. When you have a dead satellite, the technological fix may be to send up another satellite that can throw a net over it and pull the first satellite into a reentry orbit. The trouble is, who is going to pay for it?”

There are sparks flying from cyber wars every day. “I guarantee that CSULB’s campus Internet network is under constant attack all the time,” he said. “Cyber war is not something that only happens ‘out there.’ It is right here at Cal State Long Beach.”

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month