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Keeping the Peace as Geopolitical Competition Rises in Space

Keeping the Peace as Geopolitical Competition Rises in Space
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard last month at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA

With the rise of commercialized space flight and the threat of significant weaponization of space, it will take an international effort to develop and adopt agreed-upon regulations to maintain safety, according to speakers at a Duke Space Diplomacy Lab webinar.

“Given the increasing number of government and private sector actors with the capability of launching spacecraft with a wide range of commercial, defense, communications and intelligence capabilities, urgent space diplomacy is needed now more than ever to ensure that emerging space security contingencies can be mitigated as space becomes entrenched as an operational domain,” said lab co-founder Benjamin L. Schmitt, a research associate and project development scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The Duke Space Diplomacy Lab launched earlier this year, with the goal of providing a forum for a multidisciplinary set of academics, students, diplomats, reporters and commercial spaceflight leaders to develop research, policy proposals and solutions to mitigate risks and ensure “a secure and sustainable future of humanity in space.”

The lab’s latest event, “Geopolitical Competition in Orbit: How Transatlantic Space Diplomacy Can Mitigate Emerging Space Security Contingencies,” last Friday featured Ali Stickings, business manager for defense space at UK-based Frazer-Nash Consultancy and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

Her expertise includes international space policy, military space programs, space warfare, and counterspace capabilities. (Read a report she contributed to on the UK’s role in contemporary space policy.) 

The event was framed by the Artemis 1 launch on Nov. 16, the first human-capable lunar mission launched from U.S. soil since the close of the Apollo program five decades ago. The Artemis mission represents years of space cooperation between NASA and international space technology partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA).

“Geopolitical trends on Earth are now regularly impacting space activities in low-earth orbit and deeper space,” said Giovanni Zanalda, lab co-chair, director of the Rethinking Diplomacy Program, and a Duke professor of the practice in economics, history with the Social Science Research Institute.

Schmitt reinforced Zanalda’s claims, noting the extent that the commercial space sector has been involved in various aspects of Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion this year.

Stickings said interest in space is on the rise in the UK, noting the publication of its first national space strategy in September 2021 and a first national defense space strategy in February of this year.

“So we are eagerly anticipating very shortly, hopefully, the first space launch from UK soil, which will be a horizontal launch from Cornwall, we're also seeing the development of some vertical launch sites up in Scotland,” she said.

The launch from Cornwall, which could take place before the end of this year, is a planned private sector venture of Virgin Orbit, whose mission will see up to nine satellites launched from a rocket released from a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft.

“We are seeing ambition in terms of growth across the country with space. The UK is going to use space to really improve some of the economic inequalities across the UK. The government has become very supportive of space-based solar power as a potential as a technology that can help us to achieve net zero.”

On the downside, difficulty determining who is behind nefarious activities in space is a prime reason regulation is needed, she said. For example, equipment in space that can service a satellite can also be used to break a satellite, and if you can remove space debris you can remove a functioning satellite, she said.

Schmitt raised the idea of a global Summit for Space Security next year, building on a proposal that he and Duke Rethinking Diplomacy Fellow W. Robert Pearson called for at the outset of 2022.

“There's so many unknowns … and so it's really hard, I think, at the moment to have any clear idea about how do we sort of formalize this?” Stickings said.

“I think for the time being we are probably going to continue along this road of the agreed norms that are voluntary, but I think it's the power of the international community in that sense, that that sort of soft power, that might actually be able to have the biggest impact in this area.”

She added that the status quo is “quite frustrating.”

“We've had we've had gridlock for so long, and it just feels sometimes like we're constantly playing catch up with everything that's happening, rather than, you know, being able to act quickly.”

The Duke Space Diplomacy Lab’s next webinar is at 11 a.m. ET Friday, Dec. 16, with Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

These webinars are part of the Space Diplomacy Webinar Series organized by the Rethinking Diplomacy Program with a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund.