Since 1957, the year an artificial satellite first went into earth’s orbit, around 8,500 satellites have been launched, of which around 2,200 are functional. The already breakneck pace at which satellites have been hurled into space is now accelerating as one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has reportedly been permitted to launch 12,000 small satellites, and that it plans to seek permission to launch another 30,000 satellites. SpaceX owns the biggest commercial satellite mega-constellation today, beating Planet Labs, another American company that claims to have 150 satellites in space. There are many serious implications to such an increase in satellite traffic in the earth’s orbit.
First, a small number of companies, mostly from one country, are starting to dominate space. Although SpaceX has emphasised civilian objectives such as providing high-speed internet even to regions with little access, there are strategic and military implications to a company from a superpower nation expanding aggressively in this field. The security implications are all the more serious as the threat of militarisation of space increases in an unstable world.
No direct confrontation has ever taken place in space but spy and reconnaissance satellites have been active for several decades, sending important military information around. Though many countries have already conducted successful anti-satellite missile tests, those are nothing compared to the future plans of the nations that want to use space as a tool to dominate the world.
In the foreword to author-academic Karl Grossman’s 2001 book, Weapons in Space, Michio Kaku, a noted American theoretical physicist, wrote, “The weaponisation of space presents a real threat to the security of everyone on earth… It will greatly accelerate a new arms race in space, with other nations working feverishly to penetrate a US Star Wars Program, or to build one themselves.”
Although the United Nations framed an “Outer Space Treaty” in 1967 which prohibits the weaponisation of space, particularly the use of weapons of mass destruction and owning territories in space, it has not deterred space expansionism. Both military and commercial considerations make it highly unlikely that a big leap taken by a single United States company will remain uncontested. More companies are likely to join the race in response to the ambitions of SpaceX. Many countries which lead in the development of space technology including Russia and China are likely to step up their own satellite launches. Further, it is now being reported that the United States wants to continue to unilaterally determine the limits of the Outer Space Treaty with its so-called “Artemis Accords” that will pursue space exploration with economic and militaristic objectives.
The Artemis Accords, although officially stated by the United States to have peaceful objectives in space exploration, can escalate tensions by opening the doors to exploitation of lunar and Mars resources. On 6 April, an executive order of the United States asserted that Americans should have the “right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons.”
David P Fidler, writing in the Council on Foreign Relations, recently pointed out that this executive order only confirms what has been known for long—that the United States’ position on space is “not universally shared”, and therefore this executive order generated criticism. “Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, compared the US stance to colonialism, in claiming for the United States the right to seize territories and resources in space. Similarly, Russian officials expressed unease about the Artemis Accords and their compatibility with international law, with the Roscosmos director asserting that ‘the principle of invasion is the same, whether it be the Moon or Iraq’. This reaction suggests that Russia and like-minded countries might oppose the accords in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space or create a rival governance initiative on lunar activities,” Fidler wrote. The Armetis Accords can surely escalate tensions by paving the way for exploitation of resources of the Moon and Mars, a project in which the United States is seeking bilateral allies.
It is impossible to say to what extent the assured and stated economic gains of space exploration have matched the returns, especially considering the very high costs of satellite technology research and launches. Their high cost is the reason for the constant suspicion that ultimately military objectives drive space ventures.
For the United States, the military use of space has been on the agenda for a very long time. Leading rocket engineers who were in the service of the Nazi regime were brought to America after the end of the second World War and they prepared some very destructive space warfare plans. According to media reports there were proposals for a future system of hundreds of nuclear-armed satellites.
The Outer Space Treaty specifically outlaws nuclear weapons in space but as Karl Grossman wrote back in 2001, “The US is seeking to ‘control’ space and from space ‘dominate’ the earth below. ‘Control’ and ‘dominate’ are words used repeatedly in US military documents. The US military, further, would like to have weapons in space.” He also said that the rest of the world will not “sit back and accept” American domination from space. “If the US moves ahead on its program of astro-imperialism, deploys weapons in space, other nations—China and Russia—will meet the US in kind. There will be an arms race and inevitably war in space.”
Space programs have wide-ranging civilian and military implications and uses, from a communications point of view, for weather forecasting, GPS technologies and so on. However, each civilian application also has a military context. Militarisation starts with spy satellites and can extend to open warfare, including destroying or disabling satellites. Control over space is thus a way to control the planet.
Space warfare is an existential threat, but there are other more immediate threats too. With thousands of satellites in orbit, the risk of collisions increases. And military testing can dramatically increase space debris which is already a serious menace. Around 18,000 large objects have been catalogued as waste in space, but if the smallest debris are counted then the waste is estimated to be over 12 million items.
Astronomers have also been complaining of light pollution in space. James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College, told the New York Times in November 2019 that having “lots and lots of bright moving objects in the sky...potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself.” This is because a multitude of lights erode visibility and deter scientific work that is based on satellite imagery.
One can hope that the military use of space never reaches the point of no return, but there is an urgent need to stop the domination of any country, or its companies, even beyond this planet. At the United Nations General Assembly, over 90% of nations were for stopping militarisation of space; and neither do citizens in general support space wars. However, a movement of people must pressurise the United Nations and other international organisations constantly to uphold this global commitment to peace, justice and environment protection, and ensure that space is only explored for the welfare of all living beings.
The writer is convener, Save Earth NOW Campaign. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children. The views are personal.