The number of vital assets placed in outer space has grown considerably in the past decade. Defence-related activities are escalating at a matching rate, with the fear that a new space race is on the horizon.
The space economy reached a volume of US$469 billion in 2021. Therefore, national interests in defending economic assets placed in outer space are growing considerably. Satellites providing data from the exosphere are proliferating, as are weapons that can take them down. Why is Elon Musk is so interested in matters related to Ukraine and Taiwan, but not Iran or Venezuela? Because Russia and China have the capabilities to take down Starlink satellites. And that’s a real problem, as Elon Musk is providing critical support to Ukraine by delivering Internet connection. But Starlink is still a private company, not a country with NATO membership. While using military capabilities to take down a single Starlink satellite might not be economically viable, taking down a SpaceX rocket carrying sixty of them might be.
Western media has been criticising anti-satellite tests carried out by Russia and China, alleging such activities are unsafe and hazardous for our exosphere. The United States has banned those tests since April 2022. They can certainly do that as the United States has already finished its anti-satellite weapons tests. In fact, the United States was the first country to do those tests back in 1959, in response to the deployment of the first satellite, Sputnik, by the USSR in 1957.
Still, satellites are not the only assets in space. As the aging International Space Station will be decommissioned during the next decade, a substitute will be needed. China has already solved that issue by building its own space station, and India too is seeking similar plans for a sovereign base in space. NASA will be deploying project Artemis, a space station orbiting the Moon, during this decade. NASA is also commissioning private companies to provide one or even several private space stations to orbit the Earth. All of these space stations are science laboratories, but they are also technological and economic assets that need to be protected. One example is the International Lunar Research Station, which is planned for deployment on the Moon’s south pole by China and Russia in the 2030s.
The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, has announced a program to explore space-based manufacturing. The European Space Agency is investigating if energy collected from outer space can be beamed to planet Earth. Outside the atmosphere, sunlight is available 24/7, is 50 percent more intense, and does not need infrastructure to cope with typhoons or earthquakes. Several organisations and space agencies have already looked into the idea. The California Technological Institute (Caltech) launched a demo unit of its Space Solar Power Project into space in January 2023.
As we can see, the list of vital assets placed in outer space has the potential to grow considerably.
Defence alliances are moving into space
Many were surprised when the United States announced the creation of a Space Force as a separate branch of its armed forces in 2019. The truth is that the concept is not new. The very first space force was created back in 1992 by Russia. But it was short-lived, being reabsorbed into the air force as a sub-branch in 2015. That is why the United States is the only country today with an independent branch of the armed forces dedicated to military operations in outer space and space warfare.
That doesn’t mean the United Space is the only country with space warfare capabilities. China has the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, which is also in charge of cyber and electronic warfare. Furthermore, there are at least ten more countries with space warfare capabilities, most of them with space commands integrated into their air forces. These countries vary in economic and geopolitical backgrounds, from consolidated powers like the United Kingdom to heavily sanctioned nations such as Iran. Even Japan, which has a strictly delimited air force aimed at self-defence, has a Space Operations Squadron. As so often happens, being at the forefront of defence developments is, at the end of the day, mostly a matter of political will. Australia is not outside the group. Back in January 2022, the Defence Space Command was created as a branch of the Royal Australian Air Force.
NATO declared back in 2019 that space was one of its military domains and has integrated space commands in its Allied Air Command. It has also created a Space Centre. Current real world events such as Internet connection being deployed in Ukraine by Musk’s StarLink satellites or Russia pulling out from future collaboration in space with the United States and European Union members shows us that outer space reflects geopolitical tensions on Earth.
Still, other space defence alliances exist. The Combined Space Operations Centre (CSpO) is an initiative created in 2005 by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia to coordinate defence capabilities in space. The group recently released its CSpO Vision 2031 together with France, Germany, and New Zealand, outlining the initiative’s guiding principles with regard to freedom of use of space, responsible and sustainable use of space, partnering while recognising sovereignty, and upholding international law.
AUKUS is a triliteral security pact signed between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in September 2021. It became quite famous as the group enabled Australia to acquire nuclear powered submarines from the United States, creating shockwaves both in France and China. It is less known that AUKUS deepens collaboration on space technology as well, including hypersonic missiles able to reach the stratosphere. That shouldn’t be surprising as both Australia and the United Kingdom are among the signatories of the US-led Artemis Accords, a multilateral agreement to boost space exploration.
The South Pacific is a centre of important space related activities
Both Australia and New Zealand are well known spacefaring actors in the South Pacific, with dynamic private actors such as Gilmour Space and Rocket Lab. But let’s not forget that Western powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom have territorial possessions in the South Pacific ‒ American Samoa and Pitcairn Islands, respectively. French Polynesia has been used as a base to track satellites, and countries such as Tonga, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea are engaging in space activities as well. All of these activities and territories are becoming important economic, defence, and political assets that need protection. This includes space trash.
The South Pacific Ocean unihabited area, better known as “Point Nemo,” is a spacecraft cemetery located near New Zealand’s Bounty Island. More than 200 spacecrafts are located under the sea there, including decommissioned Soviet Space Station MiR. Plans are for the current International Space Station to end its days at Pont Nemo as well. But why should old, decommissioned space junk be protected? As the old saying goes, one person’s garbage can become another person’s treasure.
Back in March 2013, billionaire Jeff Bezos retrieved Apollo 11’s engine number five from the ocean floor. He did that as a hobby, but the same activity could be used for something much more harmful, including industrial espionage.
Marçal Sanmartí is a researcher at the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs where he does analysis about the politics of Outer Space or Astropolitics. He also has collaborated with the Catalonian Global Institute, Espai.media, and the Space Review. He is also a member of the Planetary Society.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.