Ever since we pushed up through the Earth’s atmosphere and out into infinity, space has become a political battleground. At the heart of this issue is not just the physical territory countries might try to claim – on the Moon or Mars, for example – but, as in previous centuries on Earth, the fuelling stations required to get there, and the bottleneck points along the way. If we can’t agree a legal framework, we may end up fighting over them just as we have done on Earth for most of human history.
Alas, it appears almost written in the stars that we will compete for them. The “space race” now looks to be accelerating, bringing with it the temptation to go it alone, or at least with allies, to ensure “we” beat “them”.
In October 2020 the US, Japan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Italy, UK, Canada, Luxembourg and Australia were the first space-faring nations to sign the Artemis Accords, governing the exploration of the Moon and extraction of its resources.
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Signatories must inform each other of their activities during the operation to land the first woman, and 13th man, on the Moon by 2024. That is planned as the next giant step for mankind before creating Moon bases for mining purposes by 2028, which could be the launch pad to “enable human expansion across the solar system”.
However, neither Russia nor China signed the Accords. Moscow was frozen out after the newly formed US Space Force accused it of tracking US spy satellites in a dangerous and “unusual and disturbing manner”, while Congress has banned Nasa from working with Beijing.
Both Russia and China have their own plans for lunar bases, though, and are not about to allow rivals to establish a set of “rules” which do not involve them. Going ahead without everyone agreeing is, according to the head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, an “invasion” of the Moon which could turn it into “another Afghanistan or Iraq”. That’s fighting talk.
To prevent war in space will require a shift in thinking. But there is a view that great powers will seek to dominate space to achieve commercial and military superiority.
Students of geopolitics are familiar with how the corridors of trade, and who controls them, have played a major role in history. Astropolitics applies this approach to the cosmos, looking at place, distance, fuel supplies and a lot of science.
The geography can be divided into four parts. First there is Terra – the Earth and its immediate airspace, up to the limit after which a craft could go into orbit around the Earth without being powered. Above this is Earth Space – the region from lowest-possible orbit up to geosynchronous orbit, where a satellite can keep pace with our planet’s rotation. After this is Lunar Space – from geosynchronous orbit to the Moon’s orbit. From there you enter Solar Space – everything in the solar system beyond the Moon’s orbit.
For the next few decades, the most important is Earth Space, particularly low Earth orbit. This is where our communication and military satellites are placed. Control of this belt will give countries a huge military advantage.
In previous centuries, dominance relied on placing land and sea forces in strategic positions, guarding sea routes and entry and exits of choke points such as the Straits of Gibraltar or Strait of Malacca. In the 20th century, air power was added to the requirements. In the 21st century, positioning assets in Earth Space is a necessity unless a state is prepared to fall far behind its rivals (and allies).
Low orbit is also the area where spacecraft seeking to travel beyond the Moon could be refuelled. Mars is millions of miles further away from Earth than the Moon, but because of the incredible effort required to slip the bounds of Earth’s gravity, more energy is required to get from the Earth’s surface to the Moon than from low orbit to Mars. If one powerful state gained full control of this corridor, it would become the gatekeeper and could prevent rivals from refuelling within it and thus hamper their ability to travel further.
There are commercial considerations as well: if technology is developed allowing massive solar panels to reflect solar energy down to Earth for power generation, it will probably be placed in low orbit. Given that this is also where refuelling for long journeys will take place, if you want to get up to a meteorite for mining purposes you may have to pay the gatekeeper a cut.
Missiles and lasers
Without binding treaties, low Earth orbit is a probable battlefield for military weapons aimed firstly at rivals within the belt, and then below it.
Russia and China have made organisational changes in their military, as have the Americans with the formation of the US Space Force in 2019. There are concerns that this activity violates the Outer Space Treaty, but it only states that weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear missiles should not be placed “in orbit or on celestial bodies or [stationed] in outer space in any other manner”. There’s nothing in international law to prevent the stationing of laser-armed satellites. And every page of history suggests that if one country does it, so will another, and then another. This is why the US Department of Defence has a mantra: “Space is a war-fighting domain.”
Britain’s space force
The UK Space Command was officially formed on 1 April, staffed from the Royal Navy (RN), British Army and Royal Air Force (RAF), the Civil Service and key members of the commercial sector. Its commander is a former Harrier jump jet pilot, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey.
The defence think-tank Rusi said after the British announcement that “questions remain as to what a space command means in practice, particularly for a medium-sized space power with few sovereign assets”. It added that “major decisions shaping the future of the UK’s military space capabilities and activities are likely to be taken this year”.
The head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, warned in November that Russia and China were developing anti-satellite weaponry and that the UK must be prepared.
“A future conflict may not start in space, but I am in no doubt it will transition very quickly to space, and it may even be won or lost in space, so we have to be ready and, if necessary, defend our critical national interests.”
In the previous century the possibility of nuclear war threatened to destroy our way of life; now the weaponisation of space looks as if it will pose a similar danger.
At the inauguration of Space Force, the then US President Donald Trump said: “American superiority in space is absolutely vital… The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground.”
The Chinese and Russians view space in the same way. We saw an early attempt to gain this advantage with the American Strategic Defence Initiative in the 80s, trying to develop a missile-defence system that could protect the US from nuclear attack. One of the options it investigated was space-based weaponry, earning it the name “Star Wars”.
Now the development of hypersonic missiles, which can fly at more than 20 times the speed of sound, is also focusing attention on this area. Unlike conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles do not fly in an arc and can change direction and altitude. Therefore, at launch the potentially targeted country cannot work out where they are heading and co-ordinate their defences. Hitting a missile with a missile is hard enough; hypersonic missiles make it much more difficult.
Governments are examining the possibility of positioning anti-hypersonic laser systems in space to fire downwards. But machines capable of firing on the laser systems would then be developed, and then defensive systems for them – a space arms race.
The situation will only become more complicated as we continue to turn science fiction into reality. An example of that came in July 2020. Russia’s Kosmos 2542 military satellite had been “stalking” an American satellite, USA 245, at times coming within 150km of it, a distance regarded as close. It then released a mini satellite from within it – Kosmos 2543. The US military calls these “Russian dolls”. This “baby” Kosmos also shadowed the American spacecraft before manoeuvring towards a third Russian satellite. It then appeared to fire a projectile travelling at more than 400mph.
The Kremlin says it was simply inspecting the condition of its satellites, but the British and Americans both believe it was a weapons test. The US also shadows foreign satellites and is researching its own space weapons, but it was furious about what it believes was a breach of conventional behaviour. Such protocols and understandings are not codified in ratified law. But the threat to satellites is one that all countries must take seriously.
Dangers in orbit
Satellites are vital for modern warfare. All advanced countries rely on satellites for intelligence and surveillance. If a series of military satellites were hit, the high command would immediately worry that this was a precursor to being attacked on the ground. Early-warning systems of a nuclear launch might go down, triggering a decision on whether to launch first. Even if a conflict remained non-nuclear, the other side would have the advantage of precision-targeting its enemy and moving its own forces without being “seen”, while its opponent’s ability to send encrypted communications would also be limited.
This is all a very real threat. Already Russia, China, the US, India and Israel have developed “satellite-killer” systems. Techniques are being invented to shoot down satellites with lasers, to “dazzle” them so they cannot communicate, to spray them with chemicals, and even to ram them. And with no laws about who can be where, how close they can be and what activity is allowed, there is the growing danger of an exercise, or even faulty navigating, being mistaken for an impending attack.
The US is working to develop “Space Fence”, a surveillance system to track satellites and orbital debris. The US Department of Defense can track more than 20,000 of these; it expects to increase this figure to 100,000, and to be able to identify the exact source of a laser fired at a satellite.
Conflict in Earth Space creates another problem: a huge amount of debris which would hurtle around, smashing into satellites of all countries and devastating the global economy. This is already a risk, given that there are 3,000 dead satellites and 34,000 pieces of space junk at least 10cm in size in orbit.
Some countries are trying to address the problem. Japan has been working on a satellite with lasers that will push bits of debris into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they will burn up. The British, dreadful litterers, are researching something similar.
Perhaps war in space will never become a reality. During the Cold War, a hotline between Moscow and Washington allowed their two leaders to communicate directly if either suspected a launch had been ordered. They saw that nuclear war means that everyone loses, and we may come to see space war similarly.
There’s always the danger that one state might risk limited strikes to gain an advantage, but it’s more likely that countries will focus on deterrence based on “mutually assured destruction”. This doctrine is as logically “mad” now as it was decades ago, but it held then and may apply in the future.
Perhaps our leaders should suit up and take a trip. As the Nasa astronaut Karen Nyberg said, “If I could get every earthling to do one circle of the Earth, I think things would run a little differently.” She was talking about environmentalism, but it is an equally effective call for better diplomacy.
This is an edited excerpt from The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveal the Future of Our World by Tim Marshall (£16.99, Elliott & Thompson), on sale from 22 April
This Article firstly Publish on inews.co.uk