International law dictates that countries should engage in the peaceful exploration of space, but the second launch of specialized US satellites last week has all but confirmed that an arms race is brewing outside earth’s atmosphere.
The Outer Space Treaty is the product of mankind’s bid to reach the stars. Enacted in 1967, the UN resolution set the standard for conduct in space, essentially warning nations to never claim sovereignty over the Moon or stockpile nuclear weapons on future space stations.
“States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner,” Article IV of the treaty reads.
49 years ago today the Outer Space Treaty was signed banning orbital WMDs and military actions on the moon.
First signed by the USSR, the United Kingdom and the US, the treaty has since grown to include 104 countries, such as China, Iran, North Korea and India.
Smaller nations such as Haiti, San Marino and Nepal have also promised to keep the peace and pay for any damage they might cause while shuttling astronauts or equipment around the universe.
Intergalactic space race?
It is of course unlikely that planet-sized death rays will pop up around the universe anytime soon.
But inch by inch, step by step, some of the world’s superpowers are preparing to defend themselves way beyond their borders, thus heightening the chances of deadly force being used in space.
Weapons of mass destruction are in theory forbidden from entering orbit. But hardware – some carrying real arms, others only displaying potential – have already reached beyond the atmosphere, in the guise of secretive, or at least hush-hush, tests. In fact, the existence of intergalactic weaponry goes back as far as the 1970s.
On Friday, the US Air Force fired two new satellites into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The launch is part of the obtusely-titled Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), designed to track “man-made orbiting objects” floating around the major satellite channels above earth.
There are now four operational GSSAP satellites in total. The US Air Force remain coy about their purpose, saying they will perform “rendezvous and proximity operations”, collect data and help prevent satellite collisions. However, it is thought their development is also part of efforts to pre-empt space weapons the US government believes its rivals are developing, such as satellite-destroying ‘space mines’.
A statement released to USA Today suggests as much. “The space domain has increasingly become congested, contested, and competitive,” Air Force Space Command spokesperson Lt Sarah Burnett is quoted as saying.
“Some countries have clearly signaled their intent and ability to conduct hostile operations in space as an extension of the terrestrial battlefield.”
A 2008 operation provides some evidence that the US has what it takes to militarise space. Back then a SM-3 missile fired from the naval cruiser USS Lake Erie blew up a US spy satellite about 250km (155 miles) above earth.
The use of Boeing’s X-37B OTV by the US Air Force has also raised concerns that the ‘space plane’ could one day be deployed as a weapon. A fact sheet drawn up by the Secure World Foundation, which advocates “peaceful” operations in space, states the vehicle has a “near zero” chance of being an “orbital weapons system.”
The group do, however, suggest it could be used to “rendezvous and inspect satellites, either friendly or adversary, and potentially grab and de-orbit” them.
In 2007, the nation fired a missile from its Xichang Space Center which destroyed defunct weather satellite, Fengyun 1. Since then the lack of information surrounding Chinese space launches has aroused suspicion.
A 2015 US Congress report on China’s military capabilities highlighted a number of suspect tests carried out by the nation, including a case in 2013 where an unidentified object entered the atmosphere at an altitude of 30,000km before re-entering 9.5 hours later.
In that time no satellites were released, with US surveillance suggesting the incident was “not consistent with traditional space-launch vehicles, ballistic missiles or sounding rocket launches used for scientific research.”
Further images from a test last year did little to quell rumors the Chinese government was ramping up its space capabilities.
Corkscrew contrails at Korla may suggest an energy management steering maneuver. Left is Korla; right is THAAD.
According to the US Congress document, China’s “development of destructive space technologies” represents a “threat to all peaceful space-faring nations.”
Russia certainly carry clout in this area. After all, the Soviet Union was regarded as one of the first governments to develop ASAT (anti-satellite) technology. A top secret experiment on board the Soviet Almaz space stations resulted in a cannon being fired remotely in space back in 1975.
In a documentary about the military space program, Almaz cosmonaut Valery Romanov explained how a system was once in place to take out “killer satellites” with the functional R-23M Kartech cannon.
Since then Russia has mostly focused on building up its satellite surveillance, but has also moved to prevent armaments reaching space. In 2015, Russian delegates presented a “No First Placement of Arms in Outer Space”resolution to the UN General Assembly.
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