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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Outer Space: The arms race of the 21st century?

Article by: Michaela Dvořáková

Outer Space: from 'no man's land' to battleground?

Since the early days of space exploration in the late 1940s, countries have looked at the infinite skies above us not only for exploration, but also for exploiting the opportunities they can bring. Most developed countries today rely heavily on space technology for banking, communication, weather forecasting, GPS and military reconnaissance. Due to its many advantages, outer space is no longer just a platform for research, but also one of the key domains that countries compete over and capitalise on. As many low-and middle-income countries as well as private companies seek to find their place among the major space actors, the Lower Earth orbit (LEO), in which most space activity takes place, is becoming quite crowded. This brings about many challenges and threats to one of the Earth's most valuable regions, ranging from unintentional threats such as space debris to intentional threats including militarisation and weaponization of space. In regards to the latter, it is becoming increasingly clear that the international community will have to work together to ensure that outer space remains peaceful and safe for all.

Space pollution

Space debris is classified as one of the biggest threats to any active satellite and one of the most urgent problems that Earth has to deal with. Everything in space travels at a great velocity, with practically every object functioning as a high-velocity bullet. And currently, just like Earth, space is facing extensive pollution. Every single object that ascends to Earth’s orbit will inevitably either fall apart, malfunction, or get torn apart by objects within its own orbit. This creates heaps upon heaps of dangerous space debris that often cause collisions and inflict serious damage on satellite infrastructure. This carries with it one major issue: it is incredibly difficult to tell apart intentional attacks on satellite units from unintentional collisions caused by dangerous space debris.

Issues of monitoring space debris: small objects, great danger?

At first, space situational awareness systems were created to monitor the position of active satellites on Earth’s orbits. These now also monitor other bodies within the same region, including debris and decommissioned satellites, to ensure greater ability to prevent and monitor potential collisions. However, the entire amount of space debris is almost impossible to effectively monitor. That is true particularly for tiny particles that are usually under 1 cm in size and almost undetectable.

The domino effect

On top of that, increasingly popular small satellites further add to the potential threat posed by space debris. With small size come small maneuvering capabilities which can cause one satellite to accidently crash into another. What follows is a domino effect as the debris created from the two satellites colliding can take down many more. But how do we solve the problem of growing numbers of tiny space debris and decommissioned satellites? The solution seems simple: Active Debris Removal (ADR) systems. The ADR systems are being developed to clear the skies of potentially harmful objects through various means such as tentacles, clamps, net-capturing, electromagnetic technology, and many more. But these could easily be used against an adversary in conflict, as the nature of the technology would not allow for one to recognise the owner’s intent before it is used.

Dual-use space technology and weaponization of Outer Space

Almost 95% of all space technology that currently resides in Earth’s orbit can be classified as dual-use, meaning it can be used for both civil and military purposes. And the majority is. Most satellites have the capability to perform various military actions, be that reconnaissance or surveillance or any other form of information gathering. Likewise, ADR can have serious military potential. Using various ways of ridding LEO of dangerous debris, how can we be sure that it will not be used for other purposes, such as taking down a functioning satellite?

Militarisation of space is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on, covertly or otherwise, for almost as long as space exploration. But what about the issue of weaponization of outer space? Arms control in outer space has proven difficult, so how can we ensure that large-scale weaponization of outer space is not on the horizon?

Arms control in Outer Space

Many treaties that include arms control in space are not in fact treaties that focus solely on outer space, but rather focus on both celestial and terrestrial affairs. Currently, the most applicable treaty is the Outer Space Treaty (OST). The treaty does not explicitly state that weaponization of space is not allowed, this is only specified when addressing weapons of mass destruction. Though it does say that space is only meant for peaceful purposes, it does not put any specific limits on militarization. On top of this, the issue of what can be considered a “space weapon” is relatively vague. The aforementioned ADR technology could easily be weaponized if there were enough satellites to form a vast network. What would start off as a debris removal project ‘for the greater good’ could end up taking over the entirety of an Earth orbit.

The OST also states that each state will be liable for the damage their technology causes. But there is hardly ever enough information to clearly determine the origin of the damage. In the unfortunate case of a false accusation, the potential retaliation would create more problems than there were to begin with.

The conclusion

Weaponized pieces of space technology could become one of the stealthiest weapons, since it is almost impossible to effectively and confidently attribute a collision to one actor or another. And as the dual-use problem is not encompassed in the existing space treaties, it seems like this issue is a particularly hard one to control. There should therefore be greater efforts by the international community to improve checks and balances of arms control and ensure a peaceful use of outer space for generations to come.

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