By George S Pullen
One of the easiest ways to win a marathon is to spike the course. So too, in the New Space Race that is the 5th Industrial Revolution, the easiest way to leapfrog the competition is to strategically spike the course.
Keep that analogy in mind as we discuss how China and its ally Russia are using Space debris to spike Space Race 2.0. Granted, this may start off as a bit conspiratorial, as America has enjoyed a sizable lead in outer space over the past half-century. Alas, as China and Russia move to cooperate on geopolitical initiatives on the ground, their ambitions aren’t limited by gravity.
Granted, the questions you’re probably asking yourself are, “How much Space trash is there?” and “How could Space debris be a strategic weapon to enable China-Russia to win the Space Race 2.0?” Simple. There is a lot of space trash and asset denial can win any race.
Space trash, space debris, space junk, etc. are all different terms to describe the growing amount of litter we humans are depositing around the Earth. In the 65 years since Sputnik we have sent a lot of stuff up (10,000 tonnes) and, more often than not, left it up there. In the ESA’s (European Space Agency) Space Environment Report 2022 their scientists provide an alarming window into the growing trash field around the blue marble we call home. Currently, 31,450 pieces of space junk are regularly tracked; 1 million pieces of space trash of sizes between 1cm and 10cm are estimated to exist with another 129 million space debris objects are also likely out there. You can see a really nice visual of all space debris, satellites and objects in orbit at sky.rogue.space.
The amount of space debris is growing both from increased launch, satellites, and ASS events. In late 2021 Russia tested out its Anti-Satellite System (ASS), which is just a cute way of saying they blew up one of their own old, dead satellites. Yes, this does demonstrate Russia’s capacity to destroy a satellite in orbit. More importantly, what it does also illuminates the extent to which Russia will influence and alter the physical landscape of space operations and human spaceflight. How did this so-called anti-satellite test change the Cislunar environment? Simple, it created thousands of unguided, ballistic missiles traveling at 24,000 kmh that continue to threaten the ISS, premium launch windows, and orbits.
Why this is a notable event is because months later, China announced it was deploying a sail specifically designed to clean up Space debris. Again, to reiterate, yes, this is going to sound conspiratorial. But what would you call it when one Space power creates the problem that their Space ally magically has a solution for?
Why China is deploying its solution to cleaning up Space debris may not be as altruistic as it appears is for one simple reason. If you have the technical expertise to identify, track, and deal with objects traveling at 24k to 28k kmh, and then remove them for “safety” reasons, you also have the technical capabilities of removing satellites and perhaps entire satellite arrays.
Russia exacerbates a known problem, Space debris, thereby allowing/providing China the political cover to develop and test the capacity to remove from orbit any object. Coincidental, maybe?
The cat and mouse game of Space debris in the Space Economy is just another example of how the Cold War has gone orbital. What will the China/Russia cooperation in Cislunar orbit and beyond mean for not only America but India, Japan, and other space faring countries? Our responsibility is to ensure the Space commons stays open and available. Deorbiting space sail technology is neither new (DeorbitSail was launched in 2015 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, India) nor the problem’s silver bullet. A rush to praise the technologies testing is fine but not without context. Enforcement of orbital lifetime requirements, including end-of-life, on-orbit servicing, active debris removal marketplaces, and insurance considerations, would all go a long way toward a real solution to space debris. Calculations around the deployment and operations of space debris technology need to be examined under complex conditions of dual-use and mutual interest. The potential of an entirely new continent worth of economic activity reaching USD 4T in the 2040s is too significant to not be careful over missteps.
(The author is the Chief Space Economist at Milky Way Economy, a Washington, DC based think tank that focuses on understanding and anticipating the growth of the USD10T ecosystem that will be The Space Economy. When not serving as the Milky Way’s Chief Space Economist, he is an adjunct professor at the University Of New Hampshire School Of Law where he lectures on The Space Economy, Blockchain and the economics of the 5th Industrial Revolution. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).