Critical U.S. satellites vulnerable?

U.S. and China locked in a high stakes contest over satellites that are critical to national security and everyday life

U.S. officials have become concerned about China's anti-satellite capabilities, which could potentially threaten the satellites that give the U.S. military its edge on the battlefield and provide the GPS signals that smartphones, ATMs, and power grids use. David Martin reports on this competition high above the Earth on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, April 26 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

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USAF laser-guided telescope in Albuquerque, New Mexico
CBS News

Martin provides a rare look at Space Command, the branch of the U.S. Air Force charged with launching and protecting U.S. satellites. The report includes stunning images of a massive, laser-guided telescope in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that can be used to surveil the satellites of potential adversaries like China.

USAF Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, tells Martin that he believes China will soon be able to threaten U.S. satellites in "every orbital regime that we operate in," from low Earth orbit a few hundred miles above the Earth, to geosynchronous orbit more than 20,000 miles up - where some of the military's most important satellites circle the Earth.

"Now we have to figure out how to defend those satellites, and we're going to," Hyten says.

"Today, can a U.S. military satellite maneuver itself out of the way of an upcoming anti-satellite weapon?" Martin asks. "The answer is maybe," Hyten says. "It depends on the satellite...when it was built... how old it is...when we know the threat is coming.''

Martin reports that the U.S. has tested anti-satellite weapons in the past and, by most accounts, spends 10 times more on space than the Chinese. A White House document obtained by 60 Minutes estimates the Pentagon spends about $25 billion a year on space - more than NASA or any other space agency in the world. The estimate includes spy satellites and other classified spending.

In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, told 60 Minutes that China is "committed to the peaceful use of outer space."

Gen. Hyten says the U.S. wants peace but must be prepared for conflict. "It's a competition that I wish wasn't occurring, but it is," says Hyten. "If we're threatened in space...we have the right of self-defense... and we'll make sure we can execute that right."