Despite a 1967 United Nations treaty calling for the peaceful use of space ‘…there is not an agreed upon code of conduct,’ for space operations[i]. From a security perspective, this is cause for alarm: the twin realities of huge civilian and military dependence on satellites concurrent with rising geopolitical tension presents an obvious and relatively easy target. Michael Schmitt, professor of public international law and a space war expert at the University of Exeter warns that ‘…we cannot wait until it starts happening to then try to figure out what the law is. By then, it will be too late.’ He also believes without such safeguards, ‘…it is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space[ii].’
The rationale for his argument is simple enough; the future of space is linked to geopolitics and there are more than 70 nations operating earth-orbiting satellites today. Nano-satellites launches by universities and corporations are no longer rare and given the growing list of companies able to launch and recover payloads on demand, even small states, and potentially non-state actors, can purchase advanced equipment ‘off the shelf[iii].’
This accompanies a key shift on how we conceive of space. It is noted that state actors are transitioning from situational awareness in space towards toward a battlespace awareness[iv], one exemplified by President Trump’s mooted space force but also one that goes beyond it. DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites programme, for example, seeks to develop a robotic system capable of servicing satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The agency also wants to demonstrate the utility of constellations of dozens to hundreds of satellites ‘…to provide a persistent, resilient ISR (intelligence, surveillance & recon) network unlike any that we’ve seen before[v].’ To this end it has a goal of placing a 20-satellite ‘subconstellation’ into orbit by 2022.
Other developments in space are also likely; the U.S has announced the presence of space based sensors by 2023 and while these could be a precursor to weaponry, the possibility of the Internet of Space also emerges[vi]. To that end, the European Space Agency has indicated a desire to ‘…start mining the moon by 2025[vii],’ and China to put a solar farm in space by the same date[viii]. Space tourism, meanwhile, is forecast to be a $3 billion market by 2030[ix].
The political and economic implications of space could be significant. Bank of America sees the space industry growing to $2.7 trillion in 30 years, nearly triple Morgan Stanley’s still sizeable estimate of $1.1 trillion by 2040[x].