The current age of space is becoming one that is affordable and accessible. As more and more nations aim for the stars, there is a compelling need to focus on ensuring peace and security in outer space.
In recent times, the space industry has been making the headlines almost every week. From innovative technologies to private tourist missions, we are experiencing the birth of a new age in the space sector where new technology is pushing the sector’s capabilities, including attempting to quench our unquenchable thirst for data and information.
This revolution in space has also opened up the field to multiple players to enter by increasing accessibility and affordability. While private companies and customers are starting to plant their boots in space, technological advancements have driven prices of rockets down and extraction of vital information from datasets have been made easy through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Satellite performance has also improved significantly with cutting-edge technologies, such as providing advanced satellite imaging that is crucial to various industries.
Today, space activities are a global affair. Space infrastructure and technological capabilities have become so intricately interwoven into the fabric of our society that our heightened dependency on them has become a double-edged sword. Datasets have allowed for increased transparency and in turn, brought about accountability among those involved. Moreover, as we reap the benefits of space’s capacity in maintaining national defence and growing economic and commercial interests, our information also becomes at risk as countries develop counterspace capabilities.
This vulnerability cannot be more clear than in the case of the Russo-Ukrainian war. As both countries painted different pictures of the war, satellite data has given an unprecedented level of transparency as the whole planet witnessed the war as it unfolded with an overhead view of the conflict. Not only did this ensure that the victims received the support they needed, but it also enforced accountability on the aggressors.
At the same time, Russia embarked on a digital attack when it conducted a cyberattack against Viasat’s (VSAT.O) KA-SAT network in late February that disconnected the satellite internet in Ukraine. According to the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the goal of the cyberattack was “to disrupt Ukrainian command and control during the invasion, and those actions had spillover impacts into other European countries”.
Unfortunately, this hacking of satellite internet is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of space conflicts. The reality is that defence systems in developed, space-faring countries are supported with space infrastructure equipped to handle conflict both on the ground and in outer space.
One such destructive capacity would be the anti-satellite missiles (ASATs) that can accurately target space assets to attack and destroy. This can result in indirect, collateral damage to civilians on the ground and orbital debris that would further hinder space missions in the future. From 2005 to the present day, the United States, Russia, China, and India have all demonstrated 26 ASAT tests in space, five of which have obliterated satellites, resulting in more than 5,300 pieces of trackable space debris.
Yet there is hope in preventing tensions on ground to not reflect in our space endeavors. We cannot curb satellite capabilities as there lies national interests and strategic advantages in having access to critical information, especially with satellites that have both military and civil functions. But we can avoid hostile space activities, such as anti-satellite missile tests. The United States have taken the first step forward in “not conduct(ing) destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing” as stated by U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, on 18 April.
This is only the first step. In light of the numerous technological advancements and military capacity we have at hand, there is much more to do in deterring escalation of conflicts into space. The remarkable progress we have achieved in the space sector has to be paired with a universal framework of responsible behaviour in outer space. Peace and security in space cannot be guaranteed when there is a lack of security measures. In this new space age, the heart of the technological revolution lies in laying the groundwork for peaceful and sustainable space activities for the future generations to come.