London, May 29 : In a move which is bound to be interpreted as a further step towards the militarisation of space, the Pentagon is developing sensors to pinpoint a ground-based laser attempting to blind one of its spy satellites.
According to a report in New Scientist, last year, the Space Superiority Systems Wing, a department within the US Air Force responsible for developing military space technology, called on contractors to develop technologies to "sense and attribute" a laser attack, in a program called Self Awareness/Space Situation Awareness (SASSA).
This program is in response to the concern voiced by Pentagon officials that malfunctioning spy satellites might actually be the target of "illumination" by Chinese forces testing such technology.
The SASSA system will need to sense a broad range of laser and radio wavelengths.
"Such warning receivers are known and understood technology," said Rob Hewson, editor of the journal Jane's Air Launched Weapons. "The challenge will be making the technology light enough as well as figuring out precisely where a laser beam is coming from," he added.
This month, Lockheed Martin and Boeing revealed their SASSA proposals.
In addition to detecting and identifying debilitating laser attacks, SASSA will also sense attempts to jam a satellite's radio transmissions.
An Air Force document obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, describes SASSA as "crucial to enabling a full range of US responses from diplomatic to military in the event of hostile action against our spacecraft."
Despite SASSA being a defensive technology, some believe it could make future conflict in space more likely.
"It's a defensive step, but one that assumes an attack," said Hewson. "It is a baby step in the preparation for fighting in space," he added.
Fuelling fears of space-based battles are concerns over two recent satellite shootdowns.
In January 2007, China destroyed a defunct weather satellite with a ballistic missile, and in February 2008, the US did likewise, although the satellite targeted was close to re-entering the atmosphere and did not leave a vast cloud of space junk in its wake.