Recent news reports tell us that Russia has just tested a space-to-space weapon. So, a weapon fired from one space object against another. This is a nightmare scenario for all people cherishing outer space as a place dedicated to peaceful use. But not only that. In fact, it jeopardises the interest of all human beings, because outer space belongs to us all.
Many discussions have taken place over the years about weapons in outer space, and fantasies like Reagan’s aborted Strategic Defence Initiative were put forward. However, discussions have intensified in the recent past, with bold and silly proclamations by President Trump about outer space as just another war-fighting domain and the creation of a ‘Space Force’ as a separate arm of the US military.
Until now, actual weapons related to outer space were limited to anti-satellite weapons launched from Earth or from an aircraft but targeting satellites in outer space. This is bad enough – and they were only tested. But space-to space weapons are an enormous escalation. Weapons in outer space itself will ensure that, indeed, outer space becomes a battlefield, with the consequence that the resulting masses of debris will make a number of important orbits useless for telecom and Earth Observation satellites. When the shooting starts, Elon Musk’s upcoming Starlink telecoms constellation will bleed and we can wave goodbye to the International Space Station or a possible successor.
Now, you could argue that as long as warring nations only make outer space useless for themselves then it is essentially the normal terrestrial war mode. However, because the destruction of just one satellite creates thousands of pieces of debris moving at up to 18,000 miles an hour, large parts of space will become unavailable to all nations when war in space breaks out. And there will be long-term detriment as well because debris stays in space for many years. All this runs counter to outer space being a province of all humankind as defined by the generally accepted Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Hence, war in outer space must be avoided. Placing weapons there in best Star Wars fashion will achieve the opposite.
That the Russian test has opened a fast track to make the province of all humankind an illusion is not only folly but means that transactional cost will go up now. Because space operators will try even more to harden their space hardware to mitigate the consequences of ultimate space warfare. We then enter the ‘screw-without-an-end’ scenario that we know all too well from arms races on Earth. Destructive ability will be sought countered by protective measures, only to trigger new destructive abilities, and so forth. All the while, those nations with no military ambitions in outer space will suffer and be sucked in.
It is easy to be cynical and conclude that the world will just take its evil turn, and that there is nothing we can do about it. But such defeatism is not warranted. As citizens we must protest what are in reality attacks on the shared province of humankind and insist that our governments resist the weaponisation of outer space. The lack of popular and political attention to the issue is the greatest ally of those wanting to mess up space.
When we speak up against the weaponisation of outer space, we will find that there is far more support for keeping outer space as a domain for peaceful use than meets the eye. A large number of nations has absolutely no interest in conflicts in outer space, but they must be woken from their Sleeping Beauty dreams! They must be brought to realise what a mortal threat to their short and long term interests the latest developments portend. That is our task as citizens!