By Ray Tellili
Towards the end of WW2, having suffered a series of serious military setbacks Germany was desperate to develop advanced weapons that would give it a decisive advantage over the allies. So it went about compiling a list of engineers, rocket scientists, mathematicians, technicians and other relevant personnel that could help it achieve its goal. By 1944, Germany launched the world’s first ballistic missile from its Baltic coast – the V2. It was the first ever artificial object to reach space. Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, that list of scientists would prove especially useful to the allies. The United States and its allies tracked down and recruited some 1,600 German Scientists for its own weapons program. Similarly, the Soviet Union was able to track down 2,200 German rocket specialists for work in its military. And so, scientists from Nazi Germany recruited by the victors of WW2 were instrumental in the development of rocket technology and space related research and exploration. By the end of the Cold War, there were space stations, missions and an array of satellites that served commercial, civilian, scientific, and military purposes.
With a resurgent Russia and rising China, the technological race for out of orbit dominance is back. Recent ambitious developments in space by various nations (China and Russia in particular) have led the US to add a new branch to their military – The United States Space Force (USSF). The USSF has replaced the Air Force Space Command. It has 77 spacecraft and some 16,000 personnel with multiple locations in California, Florida, and Colorado. It is headquartered in the massive Pentagon building in Virginia along with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air force. Its aiming for a budget of $15 billion this year. Its job is to add to the combat capabilities of the US joint forces the same way the other branches like the Navy and Air Force do. It aims to deter and defeat aggression and protect US and allied interests in space.
The Outer Space Treaty to which most countries have agreed does not outlaw the militarization of space. It does however ban the placing and use of weapons of mass destruction (like nuclear weapons) from being placed in space. Testing weapons, conducting military maneuvers on celestial bodies, and setting up military space bases is also outlawed.
Satellites are so important and serve so many vital purposes today that in any serious conflict between any of the big powers, they would attempt to destroy each others’ satellites rendering their opponents ‘blind’ or incommunicado. GPS would be compromised as would situational awareness. Missile guidance and defense systems as well as drones would all be rendered inoperable, as would forecasting the weather which is important for military operations. Defending against Cyber attacks and Cyber warfare have a lot to do with space tech and so the USSF plays an important role in this area also.
In much the same way that oil has been classified of national interest and of vital strategic importance to the United States, so too are its constellation of satellites. Satellites are the backbone of the US military and its enemies know this. Satellites are not just the backbone of the US military; they are essential for all of us. A few nations have demonstrated their ability to knock out satellites from ground based missiles like the US, Russia, China, and India. China did this in 2007. In 2015 China tested the Dong Neng 3, a space vehicle that can ram US satellites and destroy them.
There are currently 6000 satellites in orbit of which 40% are operational. The rest are expired or non-functional. The US has the most with 1897 (212 of which are military), followed by China with 412, and Russia with 176. With Space X, Amazon and China’s One Web conducting an internet and communication space race of their own, we can expect significantly more satellites in orbit in the near future. Space X’s Starlink alone is aiming for 12,000 satellites by 2027. It’s about to get a whole lot more crowded up there and even our view of the night sky (long ago lost to light pollution for most of us anyway) is about to get even more distorted. It will not be too long before there are 50,000 Satellites in orbit. Even though Space X for example is covering their satellites with non reflective material, using visors, and reflecting the sun away to limit the visual obstruction for star gazers, astronomers and others, it just won’t be the same looking up. On the plus side satellite constellations like Starlink are creating high speed access from Antarctica to the Sahara.
Defunct satellites are an issue as 60% of satellites are currently non-operational – that’s some 3600 dead satellites. The Low orbit ones (where fortunately most of the satellites are) will stay a few days, weeks or months before being pulled down by gravity and burning up as they re-enter the atmosphere. The medium orbit ones take longer – years or decades, and the high orbit ones can stay a long time; centuries or more. Like space debris, defunct satellites make it harder for space vessels to navigate safely. Little flecks of paint from a satellite can fly at high speeds with the destructive power of bullets.
Although Russia is a space power in itself and has very valuable experience and know-how, China is the biggest competitor to US Space supremacy. China should have a manned space station by this year. They now have their own GPS system like Russia and the EU and the US. And they plan to have a space based solar powered station by 2050. That is a solar power plant in space that would beam down the energy to be used on earth. To quote Wang Xiji, designer of China’s first rocket, “the world will panic when the fossil fuels can no longer sustain human development. We must acquire space solar power technology before then. . . . Whoever obtains the technology first could occupy the future energy market. So it’s of great strategic significance.” He also encouraged China to act quickly or else other countries, in particular the US and Japan, would take the lead and occupy strategically important locations in space.
One of the biggest drivers for China and others for example is not necessarily military although that’s a major factor. Asteroid mining and space resource extraction is a big deal. Minerals, energy, and valuable metals are coveted in space and private companies are already working on space mining capabilities (including SpaceX).
Did you know:
- Canada has over 1.2 billion invested in the International Space Station – the most expensive human made object (over $100 billion). It circles earth every 92 minutes.
- Astronauts on the International Space Station need to work out 2 hours every day to not lose muscle or bone mass.
- A space suit cost $12 million dollars US. 70% of the cost is for the backpack and control module.
- If 2 pieces of the same metal in space touch, they bond; they cold weld.
- Early astronauts were unable to get life insurance, so they took photos of themselves and signed their autographs so they could be sold in case something happened to them.
- Pencils are a hazard in space. They are flammable, and a broken tip can pose a risk to equipment.
- Light travels from the sun to the earth in 10 minutes.
- The earth’s orbit contains 8000 metric tons of space debris, possibly a half million pieces of space junk.
- Any free forming liquid in space forms into a sphere.
- The 2nd man on the moon was Buzz Aldrin. His mother’s maiden name was Moon.