Amidst the controversy over President Donald Trump's bid for a 'Space Force', what's really behind the push to control the final frontier and what does it mean for the world?
The Trump administration has received much criticism for its most recent push to create a “US Space Force”, with plans to start the process by 2020.
The cost for establishing a force will take $13 billion over the next five years, which isn’t much, compared to the $21.6 trillion federal deficit the US is running. Or the trillions spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what’s behind the push for a space force, and what is really at stake?
Here are the top five things you need to know.
1) What’s the big deal?
Establishing space dominance is not just defensive. In the same way that air superiority is necessary to control a battlefield, superiority in space would give any nation the added edge that could make all the difference.
Operating space forces brings strategic advantages, but also risks. Destroying satellites could potentially create blind spots in surveillance, cut off communications to troops on the ground, or even create areas without GPS coverage. Given such posed threats, this may trigger a space arms race.
But it goes deeper than that. While the space race of the Cold War may have started as a competition, today’s increasingly privatised space companies are after one thing: resources.
2) How much are we talking about?
They weren’t joking about space being the new frontier. Somewhat similar to the colonial rush to carve up territories for control of resources, space is untapped and nearly limitless in what it has to offer humankind.
Meanwhile, Earth only has a finite amount of everything. Minerals will eventually be exhausted, and it will cost more and more to extract from depleted sources. This includes petroleum, silicon, tungsten, cobalt and other rare earth minerals that are necessary for advanced technology, or just to keep society running.
Space has all of that and more. Goldman & Sachs estimates that a single asteroid in space could hold between $25-$50 billion worth of platinum, gold and other precious metals.
Forget asteroids. NASA estimates that Mars and Jupiter alone hold nearly $100 billion in wealth for every person on earth.
Establishing an early foothold in space is likely seen as a strategic necessity given the decreasing costs of spaceflight by revolutionary companies such as Elon Musk’s Space X.
NASA’s shuttle program cost a staggering $200 billion until it came to an end. Meanwhile, space flights cost an average $57 million for a rocket launch, made possible by a reusable rocket that lands again after delivering a payload to outer space.
A space force would establish an early foothold in space, to get ahead of the competition, or prevent competition altogether.
3) The US space program has always been militarised
Space may not have been weaponised before, but it was always militarised. The United State’s first satellite launches were carried out by the military. Even NASA was created as the civilian sister to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), responsible for all military space work from the start.
As far back as 2007, China used a missile to destroy an old satellite 860 km above the earth. Russia is also on the same track. But anti-satellite missiles have been around for much longer. Russia went on to create its aerospace forces in 2015. China’s space program was always a part of the People’s Liberation Army.
In 1985, the US successfully tested its first anti-satellite missile (ASAT) in space by flying an F-15 fighter jet to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere and launching the missile from there.
This wasn’t always for defensive capabilities. The Air force’s‘Project Thor’, envisioned dropping high-density metal rods from orbit onto ground targets. Travelling at nearly 7 kilometres per second, they would level the target with the force of a nuclear bomb, minus the radiation.
4) The Outer Space Treaty is full of loopholes
For countries of the world to agree on matters as critical as climate change is a challenge, let alone outer space. But that didn’t stop them from signing the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
Technology has outpaced the treaty. While it forbids lifting weapons of mass destruction into orbit, advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles can already fly into orbit on their own before making their strike. It also doesn’t put limits on weapons of mass destruction that don’t fully achieve orbit. Nor does it prevent weapons that don’t cause mass destruction, or define exactly what mass destruction means.
In 2014, the US refused to sign a draft treaty on Preventing the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, calling it“fundamentally flawed”.
5) No difference between a military and civilian satellite
To make things more complicated, 95 percent of satellites are both civilian and military at the same time. GPS is an example of this. While a military satellite, it shares GPS data with the rest of the world.
Satellites could be used to collide with other satellites, which isn’t forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty, but is a regulation likely needed in the eventuality of any conflict in space.
While he shows no sign of relenting, it remains to be seen if Trump will be able to push for the creation of a space force after the Democratic party has taken control of Congress in the most recent US midterm elections.