Future of space cooperation remains uncertain as Russia-Ukraine war drags on

Although the ISS remains in orbit, for now, the status quo on international collaboration in space may change in the near future.

ROSCOMOS chief Dmitry Rogozin’s series of tweets in the recent months highlighting the West sanctions haven’t lessened the tensions in any way. (Twitter/ROSCOMOS)

By Girish Linganna

The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia has put the entire world on tenterhooks. Across the planet, supply chains are under tremendous pressure, consumer sentiments have taken a huge hit, and global economic growth remains shrouded by a big cloud. Even the technology segment, which was experiencing immense growth in the past two years, has taken an immense blow. But what about Space – the final frontier for humanity?

As of May 2022, the space relations amongst the countries are on tenterhooks too. Even the International Space Station (ISS), which is floating about 400 kilometres away from the earth’s surface, isn’t immune to the effects of the war and related politics. While the US has committed to partaking in ISS-related missions till 2030, Russia hasn’t expressed any such interests.

In the meantime, China is preparing to complete its Tiangong Space Station to rival the ISS by the end of this year, which would decrease the world’s reliance on the latter for space exploration and projects. Russia could soon have the option of joining China in its efforts if it decides to bail out on the ISS.

Besides, ROSCOMOS chief Dmitry Rogozin’s series of tweets in the recent months highlighting the West sanctions haven’t lessened the tensions in any way. Although the ISS remains in orbit, for now, the status quo on international collaboration in space may change in the near future.

Cyberattacks on Satellites

On May 10, The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the EU and US announced that the Russian Military Intelligence was behind the cyberattack on the satellite-based global communications provider Viasat in Ukraine. The attack happened on February 24, 2022, about one hour before Russia attacked Ukraine.

The UK-based government cybersecurity agency said that the Ukrainian military was the primary target, but it had affected other Viasat customers connected to the satellite KA-SAT network, including commercial and internet users.

The attack hasn’t been resolved to date, as thousands of terminals had been damaged and made inoperable beyond repair. This attack had far-reaching consequences as wind farms across central Europe were affected.

“This is clear and shocking evidence of a deliberate and malicious attack by Russia against Ukraine which had significant consequences on ordinary people and businesses in Ukraine and across Europe,” said Liz Truss, UK’s Foreign Secretary.

Such cyberattacks targeting satellite infrastructure can clearly be dangerous as they can cause a massive spill and cause security compromises across Europe.

Conversation Over ASAT Missiles

While Russia became capable of carrying out ASAT (Anti-satellite weapon) missions in the 1960s, the US also became capable of such missions soon. China entered the anti-satellite arena when it carried out a successful ASAT test to destroy an old weather satellite in 2007. India followed suit by carrying out Mission Shakti in 2019. 

As more countries gain access to satellite data and utilize it for commercial as well as military applications, satellites will become an indispensable asset across the globe. But as the importance of satellites grows in the context of military supremacy, more countries like North Korea and Iran would also start considering getting into the race for ASAT systems to protect themselves.

But ASAT weapons bring with them the problem of space debris, something that the US national security officials have repeatedly flagged as very problematic. The issue came to the fore as recently as 2021 when Russia shot down one of its satellites. The ASAT test generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris. Although the ISS is clear from the debris, the situation is still dangerous as any debris brings with it the risk of hitting active satellites that power critical technologies.

As of January 1, 2022, the United States had 2,944 of all 4,852 satellites orbiting the earth. The US has the largest number of satellites belonging to a single country by a large margin (China had just 499). This huge number has significantly contributed to the US’ dominance in space-related technologies over the years. This means that any space debris in the low orbit directly challenges the country’s presence in the final frontier and makes the experts in its US national security panel jump. Hence, the US has always opposed other countries conducting ASAT tests.

Recently, the US became the first country to adopt a voluntary moratorium on the destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile systems. In a carefully worded moratorium, the US, although never mentioned that it was foreclosing the development of DA-ASAT weapons.

The spotlight is now on China and Russia, who have denied acknowledging DA-ASATs as space weapons. Washington has drawn the first blood to get the conversation going on how DA-ASATs are to be considered even as the future of international space cooperation remains surrounded by dark clouds.

[The author is Space and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (an Indo-German Company). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.]

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