Peace and Policy in the Age of Space Technology (Part 1, The Obvious)

The space industry has been around for over a half century, and the introduction of this industry was born out of conflict. Many remember the Race for Space in the form of the United States versus the Soviet Union. However, as technology always does, the ability to access space reached the hands of the public and of entrepreneurs all over the world. We now live in a time where business is not only conducted around the world, but above it.

That is a pretty quick synopsis of how the use of space technology has evolved. What I really want to do in this post is describe just a few ways that the space industry has changed our lives from the perspective of diplomacy and international relations. Without space, we would not have a lot of things, but the way in which we conduct ourselves has also changed.

In this two part series, we will explore the consequences of living in the space age starting with the fairly well-known impacts and ending with the incredible possibilities of the future.

 

The Obvious:

Space technology started with government and military research, and both entities continue to make serious investments of money and energy in exploring this field today. Militaries around the world have an extremely varied portfolio of space assets. For the US, assets range from spy satellites to top-secret space planes. It also includes satellites responsible for tracking weather, ocean levels, the polar ice caps, and other geological phenomenon. This space-based data helps predict natural disasters and environmental activity, which drives many of the policy decisions related to science, geology, and protection of the environment.

A crucial diplomatic role for satellites today is their use in monitoring areas prone to conflict. This includes the plans to observe Georgia “to help prevent further incidents and to resolve disputes between Tbilisi, Moscow, and Tskhinvali.” The hope is that by tracking militia and border guard movements, security threats could be identified sooner[1]. This objective by the EU is just the beginning of what could be a revolution in preventing conflict around the world.

However, peace is not only important to maintain on Earth, but in orbit as well. This has probably never crossed your mind, but after nearly sixty years of space flight, the planet is surrounded by junk (aka orbital debris). Old satellites, broken satellites, satellites that have crashed into each other, and even natural debris including meteoroids all cocoon the blue planet.

Orbital debris

The orbital debris that surrounds the Earth (objects not to size, obviously).

 

Today, over 500,000 piece of debris are being tracked as they orbit at 17,500 miles per hour, but many pieces under the size of one centimeter cannot be tracked[2]. This is a problem because even the smallest pieces of debris at those orbital speeds can cause serious damage to satellites. Just look at the cupola of the International Space Station. A paint chip that smashed into the window last month caused that[3].

ISS chip

A paint chip smashed into the ISS cupola window in April 2016 causing this unnerving crack.

 

The rising population of debris is a threat to not only satellites used to broadcast TV, relay cellphone and GPS signals, track weather, and monitor greenhouse gases, but also to the complex networks of military space assets. Space is a contested environment, and one mistake from any satellite could cause a snowball effect of debris and eventual destruction leading to serious tensions between nation states. Space satellites are expensive to build and launch, so any loss of those assets, especially ones that relay vital military intelligence, could lead to strain on international relationships.

An example of this occurred in 2007 when the Chinese intentionally destroyed the Fengyun-1C weather satellite as a validation of the viability of a “kinetic-kill” Anti-Satellite (ASAT) device. Current ASAT methods mainly include launching a ballistic missile or space-launch vehicle at the satellite, but ground-based laser systems are in the works. And yes, there has been talk of ASAT technologies capped with nuclear weapons. It is a highly-debated technology with serious repercussions should they be aimed at a satellite you care about. The United States no longer conducts these kinds of launches (not since 1985, at least) for fear of the physical and diplomatic ramifications of such technology demonstrations. This made the 2007 Fengyun incident all the more interesting. Once the retired weather satellite was destroyed using the ASAT missile, a seemingly endless flotsam of shrapnel created a mess around the planet. The debris cloud rose from an altitude of 200 all the way to 3850 kilometers, which encompasses all of low-Earth orbit (LEO) where most satellites operate. Chinese officials claimed that test was simply that, a test. However, the White House condemned the demonstration, and the act was universally criticized as reckless. Scientists and engineers hoped that from this, more attention to space situational awareness (SSA) research would be given in order to track debris fields like the one the Chinese created. Six years later, a Russian nanosatellite was destroyed by debris from Fengyun-1C. Countless other satellites have lived out their lifespans dodging Fengyun debris.[4],[5]


Chinese debris

The Fengyun-1C debris field over the course of six months. Side note: SSA is my proposed field of research at Georgia Tech this fall while I pursue my PhD. I do not believe I will be short of any work.

 

While eyes in the sky and top-secret military satellites and nuclear ASATs can be controversial, the use of the space environment is not always so provocative. The United Nations has an Office for Outer Space Affairs (isn’t the 21st century just the coolest?!) which also houses the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. This committee was created “by the General Assembly in 1959 to govern the use of space for the benefit to all humanity[6].” Space will always be contested by various governments and militaries, but space is a very special environment.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been manned continuously since November 2, 2000. Every child that has been born since that date has lived in a world where humans make routine trips to space to conduct research, a reality that most today take for granted. In a time when things on Earth can seem so dark, so complicated, and so confusing, much of the amazing good that comes from the ISS goes overlooked. Medical research onboard the ISS observes how human physiology changes in space. Doctors over time have come to the conclusion that living in space has the side effects of rapid aging. However, the work conducted on space station isn’t just observing the astronaut’s health, but working to find solutions to health problems on Earth. This includes revolutionary new cancer treatment methods, advances in water purification for providing drinkable water worldwide, use of ultrasound technology for delivering medical care in remote areas, vaccine development and so much more.

These discoveries and advances in medical technology are happening because we went to space. NASA knew that the ISS would be an amazing feat of engineering. Pieces and parts were built around the globe and met for the first time in space. The jigsaw puzzle that is the ISS is an engineering success, but using the lab to conduct some of the most crucial research in the world is what makes it an international success. The ISS is a symbol of what we can accomplish as a human species rather than just individual nations.

 

This is what we have today. Part two of this series will cover the goals that have the aerospace community drooling today and discuss the political and diplomatic support that must be in place to achieve such ambitious goals for the human race.

 

About the author: Jillian Yuricich is a recent graduate from The Ohio State University in the Class of 2016. She studied Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering with a minor in International Studies, Security and Intelligence. Jillian participated in several internships during her undergraduate career including ones at Rolls-Royce North America, NASA, and the Naval Air Systems Command. In 2014, she became Ohio State’s first Astronaut Scholar, a grant awarded for excellence in STEM research by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation originally created by the Mercury 7 astronauts. She also participated in scientist-astronaut training through a program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where she experienced high-G loads and microgravity and flew in a spacecraft simulator in an operational spacesuit. Starting in August of 2016, she will begin her PhD program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Aerospace Engineering.

[1] http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/news/articles/eav111609b.shtml

[2] http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debris.html

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/05/12/a-bit-of-debris-chipped-the-international-space-station-thats-just-one-piece-of-a-much-bigger-problem/

[4] http://www.space.com/3415-china-anti-satellite-test-worrisome-debris-cloud-circles-earth.html

[5] http://www.space.com/3370-chinas-anti-satellite-test-widely-criticized-treaties-needed.html

[6] http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/copuos/index.html

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