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The new global competition for the conquest of Space

by Angela Mathis

Humans have long looked up at a star-studded night sky with wonder and curiosity. We have used the stars to navigate the oceans. The moon, stars and celestial events like comets, the aurora borealis or eclipses have fed our imaginations and fuelled our myths, fears and beliefs.


It is in the 20th century that we developed with purpose and intent knowledge and technologies to demystify and explore what we now call Space.


Today Space is a domain of fast-paced industrialisation and competition, a source of economic opportunity, but also of geopolitical tension and even potential global conflict.


Space officially starts at the Kármán line, an altitude 100 km above sea level. So, in many ways it should be considered the closest ‘coastal’ access point to any sovereign territory.


The race to the moon in the 1950’s and 60’s saw world Nations compete in the context of the Cold War, and make the first major investment into space sciences and capabilities.


And yet the ISS (International Space Station) launched in November 1998 was not just an exploit of engineering, but also of peaceful and fruitful collaboration between global Space agencies. It is a large space station in lower Earth orbit at around 400 km from the surface of Earth, assembled and maintained by five space agencies: NASA (USA), ESA (Europe), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan) and CSA (Canada).


The arrival of new Space players, particularly SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with its goal to reduce space transportation costs and its ambition to establish a sustainable colony on Mars has been a catalyst for radical change in the space sector landscape and has set the scene for the context of what is being called New Space in the 21st Century. It is very much a new dynamic of ‘out-invest me’ and ‘catch me if you can’ – a kind of Space grabbing competition, where nations with wealthier economies and well-funded private companies are able to take the lead, and where inevitably, as with each industrial revolution, many nations are not able to participate.


We can wonder if the ‘old’ Space world truly appreciated at the outset the magnitude or impact of these changes and developments triggered by SpaceX. We might well ask if Europe has been caught napping.


Philippe Baptiste, Head of the French Space Agency CNES recently warned at a roundtable with Josef Aschbacher, General Director of ESA (European Space Agency) that the European Space Industry is not agile enough. He explained that SpaceX forecasts 144 launches in 2024, where Ariane 6 at best will achieve two, and soon the European sector will have to face the competitive consequences of giant SpaceX’s Starship launcher. SpaceX is also, he claims, posing a serious challenge to the European satellite operator market with its to-date 6011 satellite constellation Starlink.


It is reported that China is investing $13bn a year in its Space programme. There is certainly much close observation and reporting of China’s capabilities and training manoeuvres in GEO orbits. 

Comparatively, the U.S. Space Force budget alone for 2024 is $30bn, with the UK supporting its overall space market with £10bn in funding over the next decade, including more than £1.75bn specifically allocated for the UK Space Agency. The European Space Agency's budget for 2024 hit a record €7.79bn, which is 10% more than last year. 


Since 2018 we have decisively entered an era of Space Commands and deterrents. The USA stood up its Space Force, as did France, Canada, the UK, Italy, Germany, Australia to name a few.

Space is now a militarised domain with people, training and capabilities to protect and defend strategic spacebased assets vital for effective national defence strategies, and important services provided by GPS, satellite constellations in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) for internet, banking, etc. 


In December 2023 CSpO - Combined Space Operations Initiative – welcomed Italy, Japan, and Norway into its community, joining France, Germany and the U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand.

CSpO has a mission "to improve cooperation, coordination, interoperability, resilience, training and both national and collective capabilities for joint military operations in space.” i 


It is becoming more commonplace to hear in commercial and government Space circles that our way of life, our democracies and our economies depend heavily on the safe, secure and sustainable management of near-Earth space. Therefore, having an arsenal of relevant and effective Space capabilities is recognised as vital and strategic to assure economic growth and stability as well as National defence and security. Space is now a domain where geopolitical posturing and gaming are being played some 36,000 km above our heads. A situation not yet obvious to most of the world’s population. This explains largely why most elected politicians and public representatives do not feel they have a full mandate to spend large amounts of tax revenue to fund adequate National space defence capabilities when pitted against other demands for public spending and investment such as health, social services and education. 


It is difficult to ignore that in November 2021 Russia launched an anti-satellite missile (ASAT) as reported by the U.S. Space Command ii 


“Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile on Nov. 15, 2021, Moscow Standard Time, that struck a Russian satellite [COSMOS 1408] and created a debris field in low-Earth orbit. The test so far has generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.” 


The response to this event has been the U.S. led UN Frist Committee call for an ASAT test ban. iii 


There is also much to reflect upon the phrase quoted by Kevin Pollpeter, China Project Manager of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis of Defense Group Inc. speaking about Chinese doctrine on a panel at the Secure World Foundation in 2011 – a phrase said to appear frequently in Chinese articles and books on Space:  “Whoever controls Space, controls the Earth.” iv 


Whilst there is a need to raise public awareness of the threats and consequences of 21st Century Space activities in order to make realistic levels of investment for preparedness to counter these threats and defend our ways of life, optimistically, it must be highlighted that we are developing near-Earth space for satellite Earth Observation particularly in LEO (Lower Earth Orbit) to help us monitor at an unprecedented scale change in the terrestrial and ocean environments on Earth. Monitoring forest fires and other disasters and security issues in rapid transmission-time is fuelling rapid growth in Space technology development and investment, generating in turn skilled employment and economic wealth.


The international Space community is starting to recognise that with the exponential growth in the number of satellites being place in LEO there is the critical need for expert domains called Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST), enhanced Space Traffic Coordination (STC) and Space Situation Awareness (SSA) to avoid collisions between satellites and space debris travelling at +8km/second. This creates a much-needed sense of urgency especially as today there are no universally shared rules-of-the-road for on-orbit space traffic. Indeed, too many CubeSats and nanosats still being launched into space have been given licences although they have no onboard propulsion and are therefore unable to manoeuvre out of the collision path of other man-made objects crossing their orbital path. It is like having cars on the road travelling at top speed with no steering wheels and no breaks.


By way of background, until around 6 years ago there were circa 3,000 active satellite bodies spinning around Earth in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). Today official catalogues record 9,000 active satellites, 35,000 catalogued debris greater than 10 cm, and untold amounts of uncatalogued micro debris < 10cm in size – indeed, some experts estimate that there are many millions of smaller pieces of debris down to millimetre sized flakes of paint travelling at 8 km per second, which we cannot detect or catalogue – each with the potential to damage or destroy orbiting satellites, putting out of operation their communication and information services back to earth. ESA forecasts that in 5 years there will be 57,000 satellites in LEO. This is a conservative projection compared to widely discussed estimates of 70,000 or even 200,000 in the same period of time.


Space requires, therefore, new global collaboration such as the Artimis Accords v – a series of non-binding bilateral arrangements between the United States government and other governments around the world to devise norms to be adhered to for outer space activities. There is also significant foundational work being done by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)vi 


At the same time, we are also seeing unfold what is being called unilateral ‘orbit grabbing’ activities by companies like Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation and certain space-enabled Nations like China. It is a race to occupy and dominate the best orbits around Earth by placing large satellite constellation networks on orbit at around 550km altitude. These are optimal orbits for satellite constellations at an altitude which offer cost effective launch access, rapid communication to ground stations and manageable gravitational forces. 


There is now thankfully growing international recognition that we urgently need shared and respected orbital rules-of-the-road, protocols and standards akin to those governing airspace to avoid collisions between orbiting satellites and the sudden disruption and loss of services on which our economies and daily lives rely. 


Furthermore, there is mounting concern that we must consider how to counter the consequences of spoofing of GPS satellite communications, as experienced by flight crews on civilian aircraft flying over areas of the Middle East from around September 2023 and reported by Forbes in December 2023. vii and Foreign Policy in March

2024 viii 


To grasp the significance of Space on everyday life, it is worth trying to imagine what a day without satellite services looks like; no in-store point-of-sale cash payments, no internet, no mobile phone services, no TV streaming - to name but a few. Or contemplate the impact on our daily lives of interference of GPS services provided by satellites in GEO (Geostationary orbits). And then imagine the ensuing chaos on the ground, the impact on maritime transport, civil airspace, and our personal satnav systems. This scenario is depicted well in the 2023 movie ‘Leave The World Behind’.


Space is an immensely valuable domain to support our ‘every-day’ social and economic activities, assure future growth, progress and timely management of Earth’s environment. There is a lot to be done to ensure we make a success of it. It will take focus and considerable government investment, and large measures of international cooperation and shared goodwill. 


The concept of ‘Keeping Space safe, secure and sustainable for future generations’ is the resounding New Space sector mantra. ix

Written by:


Angela Mathis

Chief Executive and Co-founder of ThinkTank Maths Limited, Edinburgh, UK and member of the Steering Board of GNOSIS - The Global Network of Sustainability in Space.

*Main image is AI generated. 


This article was originally published by Italian Publication - on Thursday, 27 June 2024.

Full acknowledgement to the original publication website and editors is hereby given with thanks and appreciation. Kindly reproduced by Author and published with permission.

The original publication can be read in Italian here:












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