How long can space remain weapon-free?


Götz Neuneck

To person

is Deputy Scientific Director and Head of the Research Department for Arms Control and New Technologies at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. [email protected]

From close combat with a lightsaber to photon torpedoes to the destruction of planets with weapons on the basis of new physical principles - hardly any science fiction film can do without the use of highly advanced space weapons. Depending on the concept and script, the message is clear: In the future, warlike conflicts, as we know them from our home planet Earth, will also be carried out in space. But what about reality?

Humans have had access to space since 1957 and have been promoting the conquest, especially of near-Earth space, for a wide variety of purposes: science, earth observation, navigation, communication. Not only states are active here, but also companies. The space industry is a rapidly growing industry, but the military side of space travel remains invisible to many. Both the development of launch vehicles and central space programs have always been politically, ideologically and militarily motivated. Despite an uncontrolled arms race during the Cold War, the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, which were always at the same time the leading space powers, did not carry out their confrontation in space directly, on the contrary: between 1967 and 1984, central treaties of international space law were negotiated, above all the space treaty of 1967.

However, the delicate balance in space and the political environment seem to be changing: everywhere there is talk of an increasing power competition between the USA, Russia and China. US President Donald Trump has announced the formation of a "Space Force", Russian President Vladimir Putin has presented new weapon systems that can also operate in space, and other actors such as China, India, the EU and private companies are also joining. NATO has also declared space to be its area of ​​operation and adopted an "overarching space policy". International diplomacy is trying to establish new rules to prevent another race in space. This poses a significant challenge to world peace and space security.

Critical Infrastructure

In contrast to the terrestrial environments of land, sea and air, outer space is a special medium: it is particularly transparent, evacuated, and extreme temperatures prevail. Nation states have been doing space travel since Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite to be launched into orbit on October 4, 1957. Two essential prerequisites must be met for this: launch systems must transport payloads into space, and the satellites must be controlled from Earth. Satellites move at different heights on different orbits with different orbital inclinations. [1] Near-earth satellites enable the rapid overflight of extensive areas at relatively low altitudes or permanent surveillance of the earth at higher altitudes. The lifespan of such satellites is limited, for example by fuel or energy supplies.

Today, 57 states operate satellites, while eleven states can reach space using carrier systems. [2] There are currently 1957 active satellites. Almost half (849) are operated by the US. China has 284 satellites, the EU 218 and Russia 152 satellites. The number of objects in space has quadrupled in the past ten years as launch costs decrease and more and more small satellites are brought into orbit. The business of small satellites in near and medium orbits is growing, and with it the space industry. [3] The number of commercial providers that have new carrier and satellite technologies, such as the private space companies SpaceX, Lockheed-Martin or Blue Origin, is also increasing.

The increase in the number of satellites and space actors places increasing demands on space security. The increasing dependence of the user countries on satellite-based functions in many socially relevant areas such as telecommunications or navigation leads some to speak of a space-based critical infrastructure. [4] A long-term disruption or even failure of these space-based systems would lead to serious problems. In addition, space travel has a high dual-use potential, both in terms of the ballistic launchers used, which were developed as ICBMs, and in terms of satellite constellations, i.e. many satellites and technologies can not only be used for civil purposes, but also be used militarily.

20 to 25 percent of the satellites are currently used for military purposes, [5] although this also increases significantly with the growing number of actors. As in the civil sector, the use of earth observation for reconnaissance and espionage as well as communication and navigation is of central importance, especially for global military operations. The use of satellites has fundamentally changed the warfare of the leading military powers: The worldwide use of precisely targeted drones and cruise missiles is just as possible as the coordination of troop operations. Satellite-based early warning of missile launches is just as important for nuclear deterrence as it is for evolving missile defense. It is precisely these vital functions that governments want to protect against threats from space or from Earth.

Due to the laws of physics, objects in space move on different orbits at high intrinsic speeds and are exposed to extreme external influences such as meteorites and radiation. Control electronics and sensors must be hardened against thermal and radioactive influences; however, they can hardly be protected against collisions with larger objects. Space junk, which is increasing due to space travel, is a growing danger. A total of around 150,000 man-made larger space objects orbit the earth, including rocket upper stages, cover flaps or retaining clips. [6] To date, there have been several incidents in which large amounts of debris have been released through collisions, which remain in orbit for long periods and which, depending on the orbit, pose a threat to satellites. [7] For example, the International Space Station ISS has to perform orbit maneuvers more often in order not to be endangered by space debris.