The Race to Define Space: Satellites, Nukes, What’s Next?

The 1960s may be long gone, but the term “space race” may be just as relevant today as when Sputnik 1 launched into Earth’s orbit and Neil Armstrong made headlines on the Moon. The first two months of 2024 have stretched Washington’s diplomatic arm far over land, sea, sky, and the heavens.

In January, China announced its answer to the dominating SpaceX Starlink satellite system by beginning production of the G60 Starlink project and a Guo Wang network of 13,000 satellites. Starlink, a branch of SpaceEx, has provided the backbone of internet and communication systems for Ukraine’s citizens, government, and military, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, who is footing the bill. 

One Ukrainian commander said, “fighting without Starlink is like fighting without a gun.”

Since 2021, the naturally monopolistic Starlink “constellation” has offered its 2.3 million users from over 70 countries with high-speed internet access through nearly 5,500 low Earth orbit satellites (with some 40,000 more to come). Within the first few months of operation, China approached the UN claiming that Starlink had two close calls with the China Space Station, which the U.S. denied.

Just as Elon Musk’s company sent its 300th rocket into space and sent its first Direct-to-Cell text message, Shanghai got busy with beginning the assembly of China’s mega-constellation. Most of the world’s data travels through 750,000 undersea fiber optic cables, but satellites are emerging as the more accessible mode of internet access for areas of the world lacking digital infrastructure. 

Beijing’s announcement has opened a Pandora’s box of security concerns: centralized control of communication and information, telecom and intelligence interference, and expansion of the Belt and Road initiative. Other countries have started to shape their decisions around such a possibility. Zimbabwe has allegedly opted into G60 over Starlink. Seeing how this has been coupled with similar actions from China’s northern neighbor, one may better understand why it’s unfortunate that the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has spent more time in the hospital than on Capitol Hill recently.

Russia sent a more indirect but just as provocative message to the world on February 14th as Mike Turner, Chair of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, delivered a not-so-subtle request for the White House to declassify details about a “serious national security threat” on his X account. He called for more information on the “destabilizing foreign military capability” so that Congress could “openly discuss the actions necessary to respond to this threat.” The supposed nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed anti-satellite weapons system isn’t yet in orbit. Still, there is a whisper in the intelligence community that the U.S. “does not have the ability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites.” This message arrived just after the Russian Ministry of Defense launched its Cosmos 2575 satellite the week before.

Both China and Russia’s recent developments haven’t exactly left those in the space security sphere “over the Moon” about the lack of effective space law and policy needed to address these issues. Though the White House points to the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which implores against the launching of  “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” and nuclear detonation in space, Russia will likely not be confronted with any consequences. There are currently no international laws prohibiting the destruction of satellites which could put space stations at risk. Besides the Outer Space Treaty, there are several other agreements and treaties that are unenforceable, non-binding, and full of outdated Cold War terminology. The term “outer space” doesn’t even have a standardized definition. Out of the lack of legal framework, chaos has emerged: dangerous space junk debris of destroyed satellites threaten humans in and outside of Earth’s atmosphere, weapons systems may soon be circling the planet, and communication systems could be tampered with.

Douglas Ligor summarizes the future ahead opportunistically:  “Nobody owns space—there are no territories, there are no borders—so it’s going to require all sovereign states to come together and figure out how to manage it.

Ligor, a social scientist at RAND and former Department of Homeland Security attorney, advocates for the same type of intentional debate, diplomacy, and competition that created our modern maritime laws to be employed in how we approach the new frontier. The task of designing equitable and democratic space laws is difficult but necessary to safeguard the livelihood of future generations. It will require collaboration from countries like the United States just as much as from international organizations like the UN and NATO. Though the Cold War of the 20th century may have come to an end, the race to define space and the rules of its game has just begun.

Faith Austin is from Carmel, Indiana, studying International Comparative Studies and Russian

Tags: No tags

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *