The battle for peace in space

In January, the Chinese government tested an anti-satellite weapon system by blowing a defunct orbiting weather satellite to smithereens. The debris was scattered at an altitude of 850 kilometres, and will remain there for decades. The incident highlighted concerns about debris, the tension between civil and military uses of space, and the need for rules to govern space. As the world prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the space age the question of how to resolve these tensions is becoming increasingly urgent, and one that will require the international community to face up to some critical issues over the next half-century.

It will not be the first time. When Sputnik was launched 50 years ago, the cold war was at its height and the event fuelled a fierce competition for primacy between the US and the USSR. Sputnik demonstrated that whoever could operate in space could reach around the world - a fearsome prospect in the nuclear age.

Since then, humanity has enjoyed an uneasy relationship with space. On the one hand, our ventures beyond Earth have the potential to bring stability and prosperity. On the other, space technology can be used for threatening and destructive military purposes. The possibility of space-based weapons ready to strike from the heavens generates apprehension and mistrust.

The possibility of space-based weapons ready to strike from the heavens generates apprehension and mistrust.

Technical, financial and political constraints are likely to keep such weapons on the drawing board for the foreseeable future, but that hasn't stopped various states from experimenting with approaches to control the use of space.

Both the US and the USSR developed anti-satellite weapons during the early years of the space age - testing began in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the US started an enormous research effort into ballistic missile defence, popularly known as the "Star Wars" programme. It was rich in ideas and funding but poor in results. Its descendants are mainly ground-based, although small space-based missile-defence research projects still exist.

The development of such destructive capabilities highlights the fact that satellites are vulnerable: they travel on predictable orbits and are generally unprotected. What's more, computer simulations of war show that the loss of an important satellite, such as one used for reconnaissance, can quickly spark an escalation in conflict.

Threatening satellites or building space-based weapons could trigger a space arms race with damaging and far-reaching consequences, including diverting economic and political resources from other pressing issues and hindering international cooperation necessary to make progress on important challenges such as nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and terrorism.

Read page two.

Published on 30 September 2007

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