In recent years, nations have started flexing their muscles in space.
Four years ago, China destroyed one of its weather satellites with a missile, creating tens of thousands of pieces of shrapnel, all large enough and traveling fast enough to destroy another satellite or pose a threat to the International Space Station.
Two years later, India joined the list of nations capable of space warfare by destroying one of its own satellites.
Just last year, Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test, and the United States activated two command centers for the Space Force, the branch of the military designed to conduct its operations in outer space.
Is this crescendo of activity a harbinger of international space warfare?
For now, we are witnessing nations testing their space technology. There has never been an armed conflict in space — but it is the next arena for combat.
Charles Richard, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, warned in 2017 that the country needs to be prepared to fight and win wars in all domains, including space. “While we’re not at war in space, we’re not exactly at peace either,” Richard said.
Last month, Defense One issued a report highlighting the lack of international rules governing behavior in space, the growth of China’s military space program, the problem of space debris, a proposed space arm of the U.S. National Guard, the potential for conflict in ownership of sites on the Moon and ways satellites might be used to spot hypersonic missiles.
Existing space law offers little reassurance. The foundation of international space law is the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Ratified by 99 countries and signed by another 27, it says that space is the “province of mankind,” and all nations have the freedom to “use” and “explore” outer space, provided it is done in a way to “benefit all mankind.” Some of its sweeping and vague terms have never been clearly defined.
The treaty prohibits weapons of mass destruction, but it says nothing about conventional weapons. Ownership is addressed by the U.N. Moon Treaty of 1979. It declares the Moon to be part of the common heritage of mankind and says lunar and other off-Earth resources are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Unfortunately, the treaty is moot since none of the major space-faring powers signed it.
Lawlessness and lack of regulation are showing an effect in the dramatic increase in space junk — the detritus of our activity in space. Chunks of metal that no longer serve a useful purpose include non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicles, cast-off materials from space missions and fragmentation debris. There are 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth, tracked by the Defense Department’s space surveillance network.
Estimates of smaller sizes are half a million the size of a marble or larger and 100 million a millimeter or larger. The problem is that they are all moving at extremely high speeds, up to 17,500 mph — and even a tiny fleck of paint can damage a spacecraft at that speed.
The situation is getting worse. As more satellites and spacecraft are launched and more obsolete hardware accumulates in orbit, the odds of collisions increase.
Commercial space companies like SpaceX are planning to launch tens of thousands of satellites in the next decade to facilitate wireless Internet in parts of the world that currently have no coverage. Even before these plans, it was predicted that large collisions could cause cascading collisions, exponentially increasing the number and density of small pieces, and potentially rendering low Earth orbit completely unusable. This dire scenario is called the Kessler syndrome.
The problem has an ominous overtone because world powers are arming themselves to take out each other’s satellites, offensively or defensively. It is going to get increasingly difficult for a country to tell why their satellite went down or fell silent. Was it a collision with debris, space “weather,” or a hostile action?
No international treaty governs space debris. Mitigation strategies exist, but governments have been dragging their feet.
Earth orbit is a new “tragedy of the commons,” where we ruin something because we profit by exploiting it and cannot exclude others from doing the same.
Space junk is a headache, but space weapons are a nightmare.
China is a rapidly rising space power, with ambitious plans for a space station, a Moon base and a Mars base. Unlike the United States, where NASA is a civilian agency with plans available for scrutiny, China’s space program is blended with its military and operates under a veil of secrecy.
A recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said China is working on an array of capabilities to weaponize space, and it plans to “match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”
Conflict is not inevitable. The world depends on the smooth functioning of thousands of satellites that whirl over our heads. Without them, there would be no high-speed data flow or GPS positional data, and billions of dollars of economic activity would grind to a halt.
Every major power has a vested interest in avoiding a ruinous war of attrition in space.
How is the calculus of conflict affected by the emergence of private sector players?
Private space companies are forging a new economic model for space travel, based on tourism, recreation — and eventually, harvesting of resources off-Earth like asteroid mining. Over two dozen companies have ambitious plans. SpaceX and Blue Origins, headed by the two richest people in the world, are leading the charge. The value of the private space industry is predicted to triple to $1.4 trillion by the end of the decade.
Expanding our footprint beyond Earth risks replaying the colonial and acquisitive history of the Western world in a new arena. With few laws and regulations in space, companies will face no ethical constraints on their behavior.
If companies out-muscling countries sounds implausible, consider this: In big tech, it has already happened. Apple’s market cap is larger than the GDPs of all but seven countries. Amazon, which fuels the space enterprise of Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden, Democrats dig into legislative specifics Replace Kamala Harris with William Shatner to get kids excited about space exploration Shatner pushes back on Prince William over space flight comments MORE, has a market cap similar to that of Russia or Brazil. But even these tech giants were dwarfed by the Dutch East India Company. Four hundred years ago, this megacorporation controlled half the world’s trade and enforced its grip on power with 40 warships and 10,000 soldiers. We’ll need to take action to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Chris Impey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of hundreds of research papers on observational cosmology and education, and he has written popular books on black holes, the future of space travel, teaching cosmology to Buddhist monks, how the universe began, and how the universe will end. His massive open online courses have enrolled over 340,000 people.