The next ‘Forever War’ will be for control of space
Last month, astronauts from Japan, Russia, the United States and Europe held a pizza party in orbit aboard the International Space Station, celebrating the birthday of one of their number.
But the era of multinational cooperation in orbit is fast drawing to a close — replaced by a new spirit of international rivalry and “great power” competition.
Summer 2021 has seen a significant worsening in relations between US space agency Nasa and Russian counterpart Roscosmos, increasingly conducted through the media. On August 12, Russian state news agency TASS carried a report accusing a US astronaut of deliberately sabotaging the International Space Station, a story swiftly denied by Nasa.
China — functionally banned from cooperating with the International Space Station and Nasa by a 2011 US congressional edict, the Wolf Amendment — is pushing rapidly ahead with its own space station in low Earth orbit, with three Chinese astronauts on a multi-week orbital mission including space walks that will conclude in mid-September.
Russia and China have signed a memorandum to work together on a moon base, although the dates for any such mission remain unclear. Nasa’s Artemis 1 — its largest rocket since the Apollo programme — blasts off later this year to test the systems the United States hopes will send its astronauts back to the moon by 2023, another sign of a new Cold War-style space race.
Compared to that historic rivalry, however, the new competition in space is much more complex. It includes many more players, among them private companies, and ranges from electronic warfare and anti-satellite weapons in low earth orbit to what may be the early stages of a battle to colonise the solar system, particularly Mars.
In near Earth orbit, experts say multiple countries are taking a new interest in the potential military use of space, founding organisations such as the US Space Force. In July last year, the United States and Britain accused Russia of testing an anti-satellite weapon after a Russian satellite approached close to a US counterpart.
Washington and its Western allies have long argued against the military use of space, warning that incidents such as the 2007 destruction of a defunct Chinese satellite by a rocket fired from Earth risk creating potentially catastrophic levels of space debris.
However, US media recently reported the United States was now considering declassifying its own anti-satellite capabilities, a sign Washington may now believe an arms race cannot be avoided.
Both the United States and China have sent and operated probes to Mars this year, with China’s Zhurong rover operating there continuously for the last three months. The more sophisticated Nasa Perseverance has been active since February, including deploying a small experimental helicopter. Both were presented as reconnaissance for long-term manned missions, although these may be decades in the future.
China in particular has much longer term goals. Last week, state-run media highlighted a report from the National Natural Science Foundation of China calling for Beijing to explore the manufacture of vast space platforms, assembled in orbit and a kilometre or more in length — 10 times the size of the International Space Station.
Such a feat would require overcoming massive technical challenges, Chinese scientists were reported as saying — but studying the feasibility of the project is set to be part of Beijing’s 2021-25 economic plan.
China’s current space station may find itself the only manned platform in orbit if the International Space Station cannot be extended until 2030 as the United States hopes. Russia last week said one of its modules on the station was showing cracks that would worsen over time, and has warned of a potential avalanche of equipment failures as soon as 2025.
While the United States has signed agreements with European and Asian allies to cooperate on its Artemis programme, China is also reaching out to other nations, particularly developing countries, and may extend collaboration to Russia as part of its broader growing partnership with Moscow.
US and Russian space authorities and media have been in a growing war of words in recent months.
In July, several US media outlets, including the Daily Beast and tech site Ars Technica, ran stories questioning the competence of Russia’s space programme, after rockets on a Russian module activated, apparently spontaneously, shortly after its arrival at the station.
The United States was left dependent on Russia to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station following the termination of its space shuttle programme in 2011, but last year resumed its own manned spaceflight. Relations have since deteriorated further, even as Moscow has moved closer to other emerging space powers such as India and the UAE, hosting training for astronauts of both.
These alliances are important — another reason the United States is striking its own deals with allies such as the United Kingdom, Japan and European powers to join in with Artemis. The international battle for control of space is only just beginning, and there is little appetite to be on the losing side.