We often hear debate about the fact that space belongs to all humanity and should be used for peaceful purposes only. However, there is also another, much more controversial question being asked about whether space should be militarised in an era where so many threats exist. Should the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs place regulations on countries in response to the militarization of space? In this Op’ed, SpaceWatch.Global’s Zain Asghar addresses the many facets of this difficult question.
In 1957, the Soviet Union initiated an unprecedented “Space Age” through the launch of the world’s first satellite: Sputnik. Since then, space exploration has progressed through rapid technological advances ranging from the first man on the moon to the International Space Station. In most cases, these innovations are considered advantageous to the human condition; however, one specific activity has generated immense controversy, the militarization of space.
The militarization of space is the use of space for military purposes, which includes surveillance, navigation, reconnaissance, intelligence, and weaponization (weapons directed at or deployed in space). Despite the notion that space militarization increases domestic security, the international community has yet to reach a consensus on the topic.
Consequently, the United Nations has intervened by creating and enforcing regulations to curb the militarization of space. Among other concerns, they have cited its environmental impact — which, in the context of space militarization, includes the Earth’s environment along with that of outer space — as a major concern. A main goal for the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, the office responsible for implementing regulations on the militarization of space, is to “balance access to the benefits of the exploration…with the need to preserve and protect the outer space environment.”
According to the United Nations, because of the militarization of space, there is a risk of a “sudden, possibly, irreversible deterioration of the orbital environment.” One of the most notable reasons behind this warning is the potential for large amounts of space debris which can be created from military activities. NASA defines space debris as “junk that is circling Earth”, an accumulation of defunct man-made entities including dormant satellites, used rocket stages and various fragments. Unlike Earth’s environment, where shrapnel from an explosion comes to rest due to gravity, the micro-gravity environment of outer space allows debris to continue floating and travelling at high speeds.
One of the earliest examples of the harmful environmental impact of the militarization of space is the launch of the first Anti-Satellite Missile Test (ASAT) in 2007 by the People’s Republic of China. ASATs are ground launched missiles used to disable or destroy satellites for military purposes. In the case of the Chinese ASAT, they were attempting to test new technology and therefore targeted one of their dormant satellites. Based on an analysis conducted by T.S. Kelso, an experienced astro-dynamicist at the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, the Chinese ASAT generated more than 35,000 pieces of space debris greater than one cm. This space debris spread through the entire elliptical orbit of the satellite ranging from 167 km at the nearest point to 3,921 km at the furthest point. By analyzing the extent of the debris’ spread, T.S. Kelso illustrated the ability of military activity to pollute the outer space environment.
Additionally, space debris has the ability to destroy satellites. Since space debris moves at very high speeds, ranging from 0.5 kilometers per second to over ten kilometers per second, debris damage “can be substantial if not catastrophic.” According to Holger Krag, head of the European Space Association’s space debris office, “a piece of space debris the size of a cherry travelling at a typical orbital velocity carries the force of an exploding grenade.” The debris from the Chinese ASAT put nearly 70 percent of all Low Earth Orbit satellite payloads at risk.
As a result of the large amount of debris generated from the Chinese ASAT and the capacity of space debris to cause immense damage to space assets, the militarization of space is considered detrimental to the environment. As Surya Gablin Gunasekara, a highly ranked official in the United States Department of Defense, states: “space warfare could one day have the effect of entombing the Earth in orbital debris and risking the space assets of every space-faring nation.”
Mutually Assured Destruction
Debris-related issues are a direct consequence of the weaponization of space; however, if ASATs or other space weapons were not used, then the creation of space debris would be mitigated.
During the Cold War, a doctrine called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) contained the use of nuclear weapons. Under the MAD doctrine, nations agreed to use nuclear weapons only for retaliatory purposes and not to initiate nuclear conflict. Through MAD, the use of nuclear weapons became “unimaginable.” According to the Department of Defense, “Mutually Assured Destruction as applied to the space environment and the international space legal framework supplies enough deterrence to prevent the widespread use of space weapons.” In other words, if the MAD doctrine is applied to the weaponization of space as it has been applied to weapons of mass destruction on Earth, space warfare may also become unimaginable. Hence, if space weapons are not used, then debris creation would not occur and the negative impact of the militarization of space on the environment would not exist.
In addition to its potential to create space debris, the militarization of space has negatively impacted the environment due to military spending taking priority over environmental spending. For example, in 2008, the European Union launched the satellite Kopernikus with the original dual purpose of “disaster prevention and protection of the environment.” According to the leader of security and disarmament for a leading conflict response organisation in the Netherlands, Frank Slijper, Kopernikus is increasingly used for military purposes (“disaster prevention”) as opposed to “protection of the environment.”
Satellites like Kopernikus are commonly referred to as “dual-use satellites.” Such satellites “initially are very much presented as civil security initiatives, sometimes as dual or multiple purpose, whereas a closer look in many cases reveals a strong military component.” In fact, through concealing the real purpose of the satellite with the term ‘dual use’ many of these satellites utilize environmental funds for military purposes. Essentially, satellites created to monitor the environment are being repurposed for military use, posing a threat to Earth’s environment by reducing environmental monitoring.
Innovation and the Militarization of Space
Despite the depletion of funds for satellite based environmental monitoring, the current investment in technologies for the militarization of space has spawned innovations that can be viewed as positive for the environment. One of the most commonly cited examples is the Global Positioning System or GPS. Although GPS was first established for the US military in the 1980s, since its release to the public it has played an integral role in environmental monitoring.
GPS is a cost-effective and beneficial tool for the forecasting of weather, monitoring of terrains, and changes in the environment. According to the US government, “By connecting position information with other types of data, it is possible to analyze many environmental problems from a new perspective.” In addition, a number of startups are leveraging technology originally developed for the military to develop services for monitoring the environment. Two of them, Spire and Planet, are providing access to earth observation and environmental data on a near real-time basis and at affordable prices, allowing third parties to utilize this data for deeper analysis of the environment.
The militarization of space has also led to the creation of technology that assists with the cleanup of space debris. According to the Youth Ukrainian Aerospace Association, “Technologies developed in the framework of Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI [a space-based military program during the Cold War] can be applied for space debris removal.” As a result, the innovation from the militarization of space is aiding the environment.
The environmental challenge going forward will be to harness the benefits attributed to the militarization of space, while placing more stringent controls on the weaponization of space. According to various experts, the human race is relying on a long-term development of space-based technologies, both on the ground (satellite based data communications and earth monitoring) and in space (asteroid mining and space manufacturing) for its continued growth and evolution. The international community must understand that conservation of the space environment is critical for the use and sustainability of outer space. Hence, when the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs meets in the coming year, they should seek to restrict the use of weapons in space, keeping the environmental impact at the forefront.
Zain Asghar is 16 years, lives in Dubai and wrote this op’ed for his college work at The American School of Dubai.