The military race between the US, China and Russia redoubles the threat of a war in space

Conquer space to dominate the Earth. In these times, a war beyond Earth orbit is a real and sensible hypothesis. Experts argue that the the struggle to dominate space has been reactivated, but in different economic and geopolitical conditions than those that once fueled the race between the United States and the Soviet Union. At this time, all the great powers of the globe want to join, in their own way, this new space battle. And more and more voices warn that the military dimension of space it is becoming essential to understand this new stage of the space race.

As Marcello Spagnulo, an aeronautical engineer and author of the books ‘Geopolitics of Space Exploration’ and ‘Stellar Capitalism’ (from the Italian publisher Rubbettino), explains, “the space orbit it has become a real place for a war”. In this sense, Amy Nelson, a researcher at the think tank Brookings Institution specializing in security, strategy, technology and foreign policy, who argues that “although a war would be the worst scenario, space has become a domain for competition“.

The most illustrative example of this new phenomenon is perhaps the impact of the ukrainian war in space projects. In 2022, the start of the Ukrainian war and the announcement of the first sanctions against Russia, Yuri Borisovthe then head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, launched a series of inflammatory statements about its space policy. First, in a particularly tense moment, he threatened to crash a part of the International Space Station (ISS) into the ground. Later, he announced that Russia would abandon the space platform—considered one of the largest cooperative projects in history—and would build a space station of its own.

This is how, in just a few months, Russia announced the end of space projects that, until now, were considered true symbols of international cooperation. to supposedly embark on missions of their own. Borisov announced the cancellation of several joint missions with Europe and the United States – such as, for example, a historic mission to Mars that was to bear the name of rosalind franklin— and announced the withdrawal of Russian personnel from the European spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana. “The war in Ukraine It has been a before and after in space exploration”, says Spagnulo. “We are in a moment of uncertainty”, certifies the expert after the events of the last year.

Experts warn that the military dimension in space is increasingly important and the possibility of a conflict in the future is real.

Space, reflection of land disputes

In October 1967, more than 100 countries signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST) and established that space is a “common heritage” and can only be used “for peaceful purposes.” Now, more than fifty years later, the new geopolitical dynamics and economic concerns have set aside the idea of ​​space as a place of cooperation and a global common good that must be preserved and have converted it into a competitive environment between the big companies. globe powers.

The race to conquer the Moon has once again become a new geopolitical objective. In this alien competition, “being higher than the adversary is very important in American political doctrine”, indicates Spagnulo. The United States, along with some thirty allied countries, has already launched a new space program known as Artemis with the intention of stepping on the Moon again, creating a space station on this soil and, from there, power missions to Mars and beyond. “They want to be the first to get there, because whoever arrives first has the power to dictate the rules of the game“, explains the engineer. But they are not alone. More and more countries are determined to leave their mark on the terrestrial satellite.

Russia has also joined this race to reconquer the Moon. Although it is true that in the last year this country “has concentrated on the ground and has put space domain to one side”, according to Nelson, the new geopolitical reality puts on the table the possibility of a “strong deal with China”. As Spagnulo points out, “we could witness a new bloc with China and Russia” in lunar projects. China currently stands out as a very technologically advanced country in the field of space and already has satellites and even a scout vehicle on the far side of the Moon.

Unlike the space race of the 20th century, Nelson explains in the current one there are “many more actors”. Despite not being at the level of the Americans and the Chinese, there are other nations like India, Japan, Israel, North and South Korea, and Iran which also have the capacity to send satellites, rockets or other infrastructure into space. “They have foundations to have a role in space and are extremely important at a geopolitical level. We must not forget them,” Spagnulo insists. In recent years, strong privatization has also been observed in the field of space technological innovation. “National capabilities used to belong to the states, and now we we are approaching the private sector“, says Nelson. A clear example of this is the arrival of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to this space competition: two billionaires determined to lead the recapture of the moon.

Geopolitical tensions infect new space projects

The wealth of the moon

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The thirst to conquer the so-called “eighth continent” invades the economic aspirations of the great powers, which are further accentuated by the existence of exploitable resources. In the eyes of miners and settlers, the Moon, constantly bombarded by meteoroids (asteroids less than one meter), has millions of possibilities. “The Apollo 11 mission brought some stones to Earth, but imagine that in 10 years we could extract thousands,” says Spagnulo.

Josep Maria Trigo, researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences (CSIC) and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia, states that among the most abundant minerals on the Moon are “silicates, whose extraction of iron and magnesium could have aerospace applications.” Likewise, “its silicon can be used to build solar panels, and sodium and magnesium, as cements.” Finally, “its oxygen can be used to support living beings in the bases, or as fuel,” adds the expert. On the other hand, many analyzes reveal the presence of Helium 3 on the Moon: a gas considered “the Holy Grail” of space, could be used as fuel in nuclear fusion reactors (although Trigo notes that this technology is “not yet mature”).