The Saturday Paper

By James Brown

Beneath George Clooney’s steely gaze, the crisis at the heart of the 2013 movie Gravity begins when a major global power recklessly shoots down a satellite, creating a chain reaction of rolling debris that destroys most of the space infrastructure orbiting our planet. Amid the drama of exploding satellites and disintegrating space stations, some things are all too authentic: the first reaction of Clooney’s astronaut character is to wryly bemoan, “Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”

The reality is that much more is at stake in space. For a start, almost no financial transaction in Australia would take place without assured access to the clocks onboard global positioning system (GPS) satellites. Let alone the reliance our data-enabled economy has on space-based navigation and communications services for transport, agriculture, mining, and more. But largely hidden from view, strategic competition between major powers in space is increasing. While co-operation between the US and China across a range of issues is broadening and improving, space remains the one area where language remains hawkish, dialogue is negligible, and co-operation is officially banned. Australians should be concerned about the strategic developments playing out thousands of kilometres above us.

Beyond the convenience of GPS — via enabled smartphones and in-car navigation systems — so much of our economy now relies on space-based infrastructure and space-enabled transactions. A report prepared for the Australian government concludes that space-based precision navigation systems will deliver productivity benefits to the Australian economy worth between $7.8 billion and $13.7 billion by 2020. The importance of satellites for transport, aviation, television and communications, mapping and surveying, even the autonomous trucks operating in Pilbara mines, is clear. What is less apparent is that nearly every time you swipe a credit card, you are performing a space-enabled transaction. For two banks to reconcile your purchase, they need highly accurate date-time stamps — provided in most cases from the atomic clocks onboard GPS satellites. Precision matters, so much so that a university team in Western Australia is now engaged in an effort to develop even more precise clocks to go onboard the next generation of satellites.

If space systems are important when paying for your coffee, then they are vital to the Australian Defence Force. Global militaries have relied on surveillance, reconnaissance and communications satellites for decades — US Defence Support Program infra-red satellites, for example, connected to the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, have provided early warning for nuclear explosions and missile launches — most notably during the time of the first Gulf War. Since the late 1990s global militaries have also come to rely on GPS for precision navigation and all-weather operations. Brett Biddington, an Australian space expert, sees this reliance increasing: “Next-generation systems, including new fighter aircraft, destroyers and future soldiers will simply not function very well without access to space communications and space-derived data.” General John Hyten, the commander of the US Air Force’s space command, puts it more starkly: “There is no such thing as a day without space.” Without space, he says, the US military goes back to the industrial age.

In an unusual television interview on America’s 60 Minutes last month, Hyten pointed to recent developments in space that are concerning him. Chief among these: Chinese anti-satellite weapons. In 2007 an unannounced Chinese anti-satellite missile launch destroyed an ageing Chinese meteorological satellite and created more than 3000 pieces of space debris in the process — debris that forced the International Space Station to manoeuvre at least three times last year. Hyten coyly indicated in his interview that China has a missile that can shoot down sensitive US geo-synchronous satellites in deep space — up to 30,000 kilometres above the earth. In his words: “Now we have to figure out how to defend those satellites, and we’re going to. Space Command is making its new satellites more manoeuvrable to evade attack, and also more resistant to jamming." The conversations on space are increasingly hawkish. Recent classified briefings by US Space Command to congress have included discussions on grappler satellites. These are small “co-orbital” satellites being built by China and Russia that can manoeuvre alongside US satellites, attach themselves, and drag US satellites down to their destruction in Earth’s atmosphere. Of course the US has its space secrets, too — the new unmanned X-37B space vehicle last October returned from a 675-day-long mission in space, purpose unknown.

Across the US–China strategic competitiveness that now forms the atmosphere for Asian geopolitics, there are many areas of collaboration and compromise. But the growing space arms race is not one of them.

On the vexing maritime issues of the South China and East China seas, the US and China have been able to forge recent agreements to talk about collaborative confidence-building measures. On other policy issues there are historically rich and productive exchanges between US and Chinese officials. But there is no dialogue between these two powers on space. Congressional legislation bans any and all collaboration between US and Chinese space officials. Chinese space experts cannot attend NASA conferences or set foot on NASA property. The last US space commander, when asked, admitted he had never met his Chinese counterpart.

An analysis published by the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre last November grimly concludes “weaponisation of the space domain is likely to take place”. Last year Australia’s Department of Defence crafted its first defence space strategy and a newly formed whole-of-government space co-ordination committee issued an inaugural “State of Space” report. It prominently pledged the government’s intention “to support rules-based international access to the space environment; promoting peaceful, safe and responsible activities in space”.

The United Nations and European Union particularly are engaged across a range of collaborative efforts to maintain the rules of the road when it comes to space. A 1967 Outer Space Treaty partially addresses issues of the weaponisation of space and a 1984 agreement attempts to extend the UN Charter and international law to the heavens. But these efforts have to date been largely unsuccessful in focusing collaboration when it comes to the use of space for military and intelligence purposes. A new international code of conduct for space is being mooted. But on a visit to Sydney earlier this year, the US under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Rose Gottemoeller, explained to me that the problem with arms control treaties in space is that they are almost impossible to verify. For that reason, the US, along with its allies, is involved in a collaborative, expensive and technically gruelling effort to develop what it calls “space situational awareness”. Effectively, systems that can catalogue every satellite, space station and speck of debris rotating Earth — and sound a warning when something unexpectedly moves.

Australia has agreed to host a radar and telescope that will assist in this effort, and could potentially host the second site of a US program known as Space Fence. Discussions about how all this information will be shared are ongoing — the US and France recently signed an agreement to exchange technical data on space and, with French help, Japan has been developing its own new national security policy on space.

Tracking space activity is becoming more complex as the space industry undergoes massive, technology-driven disruption. Thanks to advances made in smartphone technology, today’s satellites are no longer the size of a bus but smaller and cheaper than ever. Before it was only the mightiest military powers that could put surveillance satellites in space. Now a Silicon Valley start-up called Planet Labs has been able to launch 71 of its own surveillance satellites into orbit in the past 18 months. Each is about the size of a bread loaf, and built from commercially available parts. Some companies are musing on establishing a network of satellites able to deliver low-cost broadband internet access across the planet.

Outside Auckland, an innovative company called Rocket Lab is using 3D printing, carbon composite materials, and electric motors to send 100-kilogram satellites into space for less than $US5 million. Normal satellite launch costs can run to a quarter of a billion dollars. The Australian company Launchbox will this year help two teams of Australian students put their own nanosatellites into space, and has been launching tiny CubeSats to the edge of space using balloon technology. And Australia, with the space skills of scientists and engineers grown in our universities and CSIRO, is well placed to contribute to the coming space boom. But the rapid changes in space bring risks as well as rewards, and while we mostly focus on security problems on land and sea, the still skies above us run deep, too.

This article was originally published in The Saturday Paper