The race to control space
In this edition, how the Ukraine war launched a global space race and undermined international cooperation in space.
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SpaceX launched 21 new Starlink satellites last week. As of April 20, there are a little over 3,300 operational Starlink satellites with plans in place to put tens of thousands more into orbit. The SpaceX satellites have been crucial to Ukraine’s ability to coordinate its defense since the Russian invasion. Where once a targeted strike against communications infrastructure would hobble a military, Starlink provides reliable, high-speed internet communications to frontline troops.
The impact Starlink had on the war so annoyed Russia that by September 2022, it complained to the United Nations about the “ever-growing risks of outer space becoming a launching pad for aggression.” Specifying the “provocative use of civilian satellites,” the Russian delegation warned that such “infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”
Last week, the Washington Post reported that classified information leaked on the messaging platform Discord showed that Russia had been developing “electronic warfare” systems designed specifically to jam and disable Starlink. It is unclear whether these systems are having any success, though recent reports from the frontline suggest that Starlink signals are being interrupted more frequently. China is also seeking to develop a counter to Starlink, including a high-power microwave weapon so compact that it can fit on a bookshelf.
Back in December, U.S. General Bradley Chance Saltzman, the chief of space operations in the U.S. Space Force, observed that “this modern war that we’re seeing play out in Ukraine is just indicative of what we can expect in the future.” The reliance on satellite technology has been eye-opening.
Companies like the U.S.-based Planet have published satellite images of battlefields across Ukraine from the first day of the Russian invasion. The rapid deployment of miniature satellites (known as CubeSats), from 11 in 2006 to more than 500 last year, has allowed the media to share images of the war in real time while also aiding Ukrainian commanders in strike planning and damage assessments. Maxar Technologies, a satellite provider, frequently released images of a 40-mile-long Russian convoy north of Kyiv. These images played a crucial role in helping Ukrainian forces with their deterrence measures, were used to hold Russian forces accountable for their actions and enabled a free flow of information unhampered by protocol around clearances and classification as would have been the case with spy satellites.
WHY IT MATTERS
As Russia amassed troops along the Ukrainian border, the U.S. government encouraged commercial space companies to share what images they had. “This is really the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery may play a significant role in providing open source information about troop movements,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, wrote in a letter to eight commercial space companies.
Unprecedented access to space imagery was the upside. Private companies helped reduce costs for government agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency, spurring faster development and greater opportunities for governments to get to space.
The downside though is that the war in Ukraine has had consequences for international cooperation on space projects. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was involved in a European Mars rover project, which has now been stalled due to the conflict. “The Russians won’t get the science from those missions,” said Albert Haldemann, the European Space Agency’s Mars chief engineer. “But the world won’t get the science either,” he told me. “We’re losing the science that would have come from the landing platform and we don’t know when we’re going to recover.”
The Mars mission was one of a handful of European projects that were suspended when Russia stopped supplying rockets to the EU, in response to the economic sanctions levied against it at the start of the war. Northrop Grumman, the U.S.-headquartered multinational aerospace company, had to move production of its Antares rocket away from Ukraine. The rocket, used by NASA to transport cargo to the International Space Station, was powered by engines made in Russia. This joint American, Ukrainian and Russian effort to build Antares was once cited as an example of international cooperation and a buffer against the militarization of space.
Now, as international space research flounders, its cooperative goal has been replaced by a narrow desire to dominate space.
The war in Ukraine has become known as the world’s first “commercial space war,” and significant casualties of this war were international space research and collaboration. The role played by private companies in supporting Ukraine’s defense has been extraordinary, but can these private companies assert how their technology should be used? In February 2022, a Starlink executive asserted that Ukraine had “weaponized” the company’s satellite technology by using it to control drones and bomb Russian troops. An outraged adviser in the office of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy tweeted in response that “companies have to decide,” that they are either with Ukraine or they are not.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of private companies in shaping the future of the global space industry. But space has also become a frontier for war. China intends to send some 13,000 satellites into orbit to help “suppress” Starlink. The war in Ukraine has prompted China in particular to pursue an aggressive space strategy. Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator and a former astronaut, said in January that the U.S. was “in a space race” with China and that the U.S. “had better watch out.” A handful of countries are also developing anti-satellite weapons capabilities.
But a long term positive outcome of the flurry of investment in commercial satellite technology is that the pictures this tech provides can play an essential role in holding governments to account. If satellite technology has given ordinary citizens around the world an unprecedented vantage point on the war in Ukraine, the same transparency, precision and accountability can be extended to climate change, for instance, or used to monitor agricultural trends.
As for Ukraine, important as satellite technology has been in warfare, perhaps its most lasting effect will be the contributions it makes to documenting war crimes and to bringing war criminals to justice.
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