July 2023

Star wars siren

UN member nations should negotiate a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, says the organisation’s Secretary General as he calls for an interface of operations in Earth’s orbit and beyond.  Amit Agnihotri reports

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has flagged up the need for a new global treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space as military standoffs between powerful nations increasingly extend to the skies.

The race for space between the US and the then Soviet Union began with Moscow’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, and led to the UN setting up the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959. In the years that followed, the committee worked closely with diplomatic and scientific experts to reach an agreement on five treaties that were negotiated between 1967 and 1979.

Together, these treaties addressed challenges and risks associated with space exploration, rescue of astronauts, liability for and registration of space objects and agreement for activities on the Moon and other celestial bodies.

Most significant was the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which barred member nations from deploying weapons of mass destruction in space. But there was a catch: the pact did not mention conventional weapons.

Hence, six decades later, the UN feels the need for a new pact to secure the skies.

As far as satellite proliferation is concerned, most of the action is taking place in low Earth orbit. But deep space exploration is also back on the agenda of the powers that be. The last deep space project was the American Apollo mission in 1972. Now, countries including China, Japan, various European nations and India have joined the coveted club.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman makes remarks during the U.S. Space Force’s 3rd birthday celebration at the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., Nov. 30, 2022. The birthday officially falls on Dec. 20. (U.S. Air Force
USSF chief General Bradley Chance Saltzmanhas highlighted the changed nature of modern warfare

The proliferation of satellites took place primarily due to advances in telecommunications, rocketry and satellite technology, which in turn facilitated newer launches and relaunches at reduced cost.

According to UN estimates, the number of nations having at least one satellite went up from 10 in 1970 to 91 in 2022. Over the coming years, the number of satellite launches is expected to rise significantly due to the growing utility of machines in managing communications networks, which serve military purposes as well.

Satellite-based communications are more secure and cheaper than ground-based or under-sea networks. Therefore, they find greater usage among nations. A recent example is the use of US and NATO satellites to back Ukraine against the might of Russia’s military machine. New technology has also meant that nations not only have the power to destroy their own redundant satellites but canalso target the satellites of adversaries.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 barred member nations from deploying weapons of mass destruction in space

The US is particularly concerned over the rapid rise in the Chinese space program over the past decade and the fact that Russia has developed similar capabilities.

China set up its Strategic Support Force as an independent branch of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2015, followed by the United States Space Force taking shape in 2018.

This explains why USSF chief General Bradley Chance Saltzman recently highlighted the changed nature of modern warfare and stressed the need for Washington to deal with Beijing’s capacities to damage American satellites, including blinding the communications systems which track enemy movement on the ground.

Between 1957 and 2012, the number of satellites launched into outer space remained consistent at around 150 a year and included the landmark human missions to the Earth’s orbit and to the Moon.The period witnessed development of global communications satellite systems and saw the International Space Station become a reality in 1998.

In contrast to that period, the past decade has seen a rapid rise in the number of satellites launched into low Earth orbit from 210 in 2013 to 2,470 in 2022.

China set up its Strategic Support Force as an independent branch of the PLAin 2015

The past decade has also witnessed a rapid increase in the number of private missions to space launched by private companies, including the first-ever mission to the International Space Station in 2021 by SpaceX. This entry of private players has brought down the cost of launching satellites and paved the way for a number of planned private missions for communications, resource activities, space tourism and scientific study.

Although private sector activity is most robust in the United States, new actors are emerging around the globe. In China, many new commercial space companies have been started and development is accelerating. Similar growth has been seen in India and Japan.

The rise in private launches and human missions, in conjunction with the emergence of large satellite constellations, is expected to significantly increase space traffic over the coming years.

As per UN estimates, the global space market – which was worth $424 billion in 2022 – is expected to be over $737 billion by 2030. Accordingly, the UN Secretary General wants a unified regime to ensure transparency, confidence-building measures and interoperability of space operations in the Earth’s orbit and beyond. 

After NASA’s Apollo mission in 1972, deep space exploration was put on the backburner. Now, however,it is back on the table.

China’s first Mars rover Zhurong landed on the red planet in May 2021

The US is planning a Lunar Gateway, a station in the Moon’s orbit and also a long-term station on its surface. Beyond the Moon, both NASA and private player SpaceX have set out broad timelines for their planned Artemis human missions to Mars, which are expected to continue throughout the 2020s and 2030s.

Months after NASA landed its Perseverance rover on Mars in February 2021, China’s Zhurong rover landed on the red planet in May the same year. This came close to the launch of Chinese manned space station Tiangong, which will compete with the ISS.

China has also begun the development of its newest heavy-lift rocket family, the Long March 8, 9 and 10, which are expected to continue to send robotic missions to the Moon in the 2020s, to be followed by human missions, probably in the 2030s.

Beijing further wants to set up a base on the south pole of the Moon in collaboration with Russia, which has been the US’s partner in the ISS since 1998, though Moscow has made it clear it will not wish to continue with that project beyond 2024.

The move seems linked to the emerging China-Russia axis that is already being talked about as a new geopolitical challenge to US influence around the world, and may soon be reflected in the skies as well.

While no other governments or private firms have publicly announced human deep space missions, several space programmes, including those of countries in Europe, India and Japan, are making progress on heavy rocket development and human-rated vehicles. India’s Mars orbiter, Mangalyaan, was launched in 2013 and the South Asian major is planning to launch its next Moon mission, Chandrayaan-3, in July.

Given all this activity in space, a well-defined treaty would certainly serve the skies – and the Earth – better.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues