The Cost of Nuclear War in Space

Just before the Russian-Ukrainian war reached its two-year milestone today, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russia might aim a nuclear weapon at an unusual target: not any place on Earth, but satellites orbiting in space.

Putting a weapon into orbit is not just a military threat. It’s also a risk to the space economy — and the one on the ground. There is a little-known but fast-growing industry that insures satellites, but it doesn’t provide insurance against nuclear arms.

What’s at stake: hundreds of billions (and probably trillions) of dollars when including the services that rely on satellites, according to David Wade, an underwriter at the Atrium Space Insurance Consortium, which insures satellites for Lloyd’s.

Of more than 8,000 satellites in orbit, thousands belong to private companies, according to Orbiting Now, a site that compiles real-time satellite tracking data from NASA and other sources. The Russian weapon is said to be designed to target satellites in low Earth orbit, where most commercial satellites operate.

SpaceX’s Starlink dominates the space-based internet services industry, and Amazon also has big aspirations in space. But the sharp drop in launch costs in recent years — driven largely by SpaceX — has made entry possible for many smaller players, leading to a satellite-business frenzy that prompted the Federal Communications Commission to open a Space Bureau last year.

Wade estimated the total value of all insured satellites in orbit at $25 billion. That doesn’t include the revenue they generate. The Satellite Industry Association estimated revenues for nongovernmental satellite services at $113 billion in 2022.

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