Space wars: When science fiction becomes reality

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law

Streaks of light across the sky in Northern California last week were not related to thunder or lightening or climate change. Experts believe they were caused by the re-entry of flaming space debris as huge chunks of communications equipment from the International Space Station fell into the Earth’s atmosphere.

What sounds like science fiction is fast becoming reality as international affairs experts predict a growing set of space-related challenges right outside our planet, including space traffic, space debris and commercial and governmental worries about collisions in space.

Space debris is dangerous stuff. It degrades the outer space environment, increases the costs of operating in space and creates the conditions for collisions.

Two recent, seemingly unrelated events have raised the stakes about a new global national security nightmare — collisions in space. The first was the Chinese balloon floating over the United States prompting the U.S. military to shoot down the object.

The second was Russia’s reckless decision to suspend the new START treaty, including vowing not to allow on-the-ground verification of nuclear weapons (something it has already stopped participating in). Although the Russian government says it will still abide by caps on the number of nuclear warheads previously agreed to, it has raised the risks of nuclear escalation, accidents, misunderstandings and other dangers.

Russia and China are responsible for some of the most destabilizing behavior in both outer and near space in recent years. In 2007, China launched a direct descent anti-satellite tests, creating massive debris in space. In November 2021, Russia became the second largest contributor of debris by launching an anti-satellite test that generated over 1,785 pieces of debris.

Now the United States is stepping up to lead an effort to mitigate against the debris nightmare so that the wild west of space is structured by norms, rules and laws.The Biden administration is committing not to conduct anti-satellite tests and getting other countries to sign on to new rules that limit space debris.

Global governance of space is complex, with the growing merger of civilian, commercial and military assets in space. With a war in Ukraine, companies like SpaceX are helping with its satellite Starlink to defend against Russia, but it might also have the potential to generate space junk.

If neither Russia nor China want to be part of any government structures or international norms, from notifications and alerts to responsible behavior, it will be hard to create meaningful rules of the road. 

The U.S. is now in a position to demonstrate the consequences of polluting space and is taking a lead role in reshaping the global approaches by modeling good behavior and forming coalitions.

Treaties used to be the way to handle confrontations on land and at sea. In recent years, there have been outer space treaties, and the U.S. has waded into the debate with full engagement. Congress is also increasingly interested in the scientific and policy paths to protect our own country from congestion and conflict above us. Last month a bipartisan group of U.S. senators reintroduced the ORBITS Act — legislation to create a scientific pilot program to reduce space junk in orbit.

Even the International Space Station is likely to become less of a cooperative venture, having previously been the ultimate symbol of multinational shared interests. Many of us are excited about the Artemis program and potential new flights into space.

We need space security dialogues with both Russia and China. Space debris affects all of us and restarting those dialogues is critical. It is good public diplomacy on Earth and in space.

This post is republished from The Hill.

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