In the recent past, we have featured a few pieces on the emergence of space-tech, more in the context of investment opportunities related to innovation in the world of space exploration. Of course, the likes of SpaceX by Elon Musk and Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos are now well-known private companies with heavy investments in space, a realm historically dominated by governments. But now, space tech has gone beyond exploration and use of satellites for delivering services to humanity, to space being the next warzone.

“Space planes’ ability to undertake long missions, deliver and capture payloads, change orbit and return to Earth to refuel make them potentially important weapons. Russia launched Cosmos 2570 in October, the latest “nesting doll” in orbit: it released a second satellite, which then let out a third. To American commanders, such things look like a test of a “kill vehicle”, in other words a projectile for destroying satellites.

A foretaste of space hostilities came on the evening of November 14th 2021, Colorado Springs time, when two electronic bells warned the joc of a missile fired from Russia’s Plesetsk cosmodrome. Early-warning satellites detected the fireball, ground radars tracked the missile and computers soon projected its unusual trajectory: neither a ballistic-missile nor a satellite launch, but a Nudol anti-satellite weapon aimed at a defunct Soviet spy satellite.

…Russia’s second shot was unambiguous: shortly before its tanks assaulted Ukraine on February 24th 2022 malware spread through part of the ka-sat network owned by Viasat, an American firm, and operated by a partner. It disabled the satellite-internet modems of some 50,000 European users, among them many Ukrainian military units. Within weeks, however, Ukrainian forces were back online thanks to the vast constellation of smaller Starlink broadband satellites launched by SpaceX, another private company. Russian attempts at hacking and jamming satellite signals persist, and the country has warned that commercial systems “can become a legitimate target for retaliation”.”

The evolution of space tech according to an American general:
“…the world has entered “the third space age”. The first, in the cold war, was dominated by superpowers with large national-security satellites. Intelligence-gathering, early-warning and communications spacecraft were bound with nuclear deterrence. In the second stage, private firms became more prominent as they delivered communications, television and other services from space. Satellites such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) revolutionised conventional warfare, starting with the war in Iraq in 1991. Later on, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, they made possible precision bombing and long-distance drone operations. Space itself, though, was regarded as a sanctuary.

Not so in the third age. Space services are woven ever more tightly into civilian life—GPS enables everything from financial transactions to mapping apps. Commercial firms such as SpaceX have reduced the cost of launches and satellites. Above all, the era features threats and potential conflict in space, says General Shaw.”

America is leading with a separate defence force dedicated to space:
“America’s Space Force, the youngest military service, seemed to be a whim of the then president, Donald Trump, when it was launched in 2019. In fact the germ of the idea had been around since at least 2001, when a bipartisan commission warned of a potential “space Pearl Harbour”. Carved out of the air force, and administratively tied to it, Space Force is by far the smallest American military service, but is growing fast. It counts just 8,600 active personnel, compared with 322,000 for the air force, but is likely to expand by 9% this year. Its budget of $26bn last year, compared with $180bn for the air force, is set to grow by 15%.”

The article goes onto highlight the unintended consequences of this on activities related peaceful exploration through crowding of orbits and interfering with other systems.

But the most unintended consequence could be our worst fears:
“The contest in space is novel and ambiguous. Nobody is certain what space weapons exist, not least because many civilian technologies have military uses. Rules of the road are ill defined or non-existent, with little prospect for arms control. “Grey-zone” attack, short of war, might thus be tempting. Like cyberattacks, disabling satellites does not usually kill people directly. But were an American early-warning satellite over the Pacific to be attacked, warns Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, an American group that compiles public information on space weapons, perilous escalation might follow. “Washington would freak out and might think it was part of a nuclear attack. The understanding we had with the Soviets in the cold war is that interference with warning satellites would be interpreted as a sign of an impending nuclear attack.””

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