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Outer space politics today: Cold War-esque, and a little more crowded

(Credit: Pexels/SpaceX)

There are more than 7,941 satellites in outer space. SpaceX launched close to 900 new satellites last year alone. But as space gets more crowded, its politics become more complicated.

Between 160 and 2,000 kilometers above sea level there are constellations. Not stars, but satellites. Some active, some junk.

Junk aside, the view is difficult to beat. “The sky transitions from a blue to a purple before going black,” said Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, and one of the astronauts on the VSS Unity sub-orbital flight of 11 July.

Bandla spoke at the two-day 2021 Outer Space Conference hosted by the Geneva-based UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), which concluded on Tuesday.

“Our world and everyone and everything I’ve ever known looked so brilliant amongst the vast emptiness that surrounded it. And I can’t wait to share that view with many, many more people,” she said.

But the opportunity to share that view and the benefits of space exploration and technology rests on the world’s ability to maintain peace in that space.

A changing space. Today’s space relations are reminiscent of the Cold War. “In many ways we are experiencing a sense of déjà-vu in the space security community,” said Aaron Bateman, PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University.

What has changed is the number of governmental and commercial space programmes, some of which collaborate closely. Missile defense systems, equipped with anti-satellite capabilities, have become more common, as have cyber tools and electronic warfare systems, Bateman said. Moreover, space surveillance is no longer just the domain of governments.

“We have a great many more actors in space...There is more political competition, and therefore more strategic attention,” said Cassandra Steer, a senior lecturer and mission specialist with the Institute of Space at the Australian National University College of Law.

In its annual Space Threat Assessment, the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported in March that Russia tested anti-satellite weapons and continued to grow other military space capabilities throughout 2020.

China had a quiet year by comparison. The country is also an anti-satellite power and has expanded its use of electronic and cyber tools in previous years, according to the report. The Hindustan Times claimed last October that China used electronic jammers in Kashmir, though its allegation has yet to be corroborated, the report said.

As for the US, the new Space Force – a branch of the armed forces – requested a $15.4bn budget last year. The US also has anti-satellite capabilities and ran its first tests in 1959. Its latest took place in 2008, according to the Secure World Foundation’s April update.

India’s successful 2019 test brought the number of countries with anti-satellite systems to four.

Dual-face technologies. Despite growing space-based military capabilities, most space-oriented technologies are built for peace, Almudena Azcárate Ortega, associate researcher in the WMD programme at UNIDIR told Geneva Solutions. But they can be turned to conflict, she said.

Space debris removal systems, for example, clean up the messes space programmes leave behind. Some use harpoons to hook the junk and bring it in. Doing so reduces collisions. Those harpoons can also be used against active satellites, however.

Similarly, GPS satellites could help state and non-state actors plan defense and conflict measures as much as help find a restaurant.

The ability of malicious actors to flip benign technologies means that governance needs to focus on behaviours, not technologies, several of the panellists said.

Spaced-out governance. In 1981, the last decade of the Cold War, UN countries signed PAROS – the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space treaty.

Recent developments are raising governance questions that the treaty has left open. Defining interference, particularly non-physical interference, remains a pressing governance question, said Bateman. So too is the definition of peaceful activity and how non-state actors fit in.

“A basic legal and regulatory framework for governing outer space was developed at a time when access to space was limited to a few major military powers,” said Izumi Nakamitsu, under-secretary-general and high representative for the UN office disarmament affairs (UNODA) in her opening remarks to the conference. “That framework has not kept pace with developments.”

“Accordingly, a growing governance gap is creating a risk that increasing congestion and competition could imperil access and use of outer space by future generations. Even a small number of intentional acts or accidents could render vital orbits unusable, disrupting critical services,” she warned.

But governance gaps do not mean PAROS should be overhauled, several panellists stressed. PAROS has served its purpose, said Steer. It has prevented space from becoming a war zone.

“We should not be looking to open up or redraft or debunk the constitutional framework document,” she said. “What we need is more specific regulations.”

The hyperbole and the reality. Rhetoric around space security has continued since the Cold War, said Bateman. The launch of the United States Space Force in 2019 invigorated the subject. So is a space war imminent?

Not according to Bateman. “Combat has neither originated in nor extended into outer space. Consequently, it is essential that we not see conflict in space as inevitable.”

“It is necessary that we accurately identify the present challenges, responsibly use lessons from the Cold War to inform our decisions, and work towards realistic and meaningful arms control goals that will better promote space sustainability,” he said.