Spazio: l’ultima frontiera

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

We all probably remember the 2019 news of the creation of the United States Space Force, a division of the armed forces responsible for safeguarding all U.S. space operations and infrastructure, wanted by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

That news probably brought a smile to our faces, seeming like yet another questionable decision of Mr Trump’s. With the creation of space forces, the possibility of space wars was now open, and space wars only exist in science fiction movies.

But is that really the case?

Starting from 2020, the major space states (above all the United States, China and Russia) have begun to think about new solutions to make their spacecraft less vulnerable to possible foreign attacks. It all started in mid-January 2020 when the US publicly acknowledged a possible threat to one of its satellites: the USA-245. The commander of the U.S. Space Force, John W. Raymond, stated that two Russian vehicles were tracking the multi-billion dollar U.S. satellite at a constant distance of about 100 miles (just under 200 km) which, in that orbital range 640 km away from Earth, is very close.

Moscow, for its part, has defended itself by stating that the two vehicles were performing inspection manoeuvres, but General Raymond has defined the activity of the Russian satellites as “unusual and disturbing”, stressing that at that distance it is impossible to distinguish inspection manoeuvres from those that could precede an attack. Then, in mid-April 2020, Russia conducted a test for an anti-satellite weapon with a missile launched directly from Earth which, after passing through the atmosphere without hitting any targets, landed in the Laptev Sea. Finally, on July 25, 2020, one of the two Russian vehicles mentioned above released an unidentified small object into the atmosphere; both the U.S. and British militaries recognized it as a weapon, possibly a bullet. The Russian Federation has not confirmed this hypothesis but, even if it had, little would have changed.

With its manoeuvres, although threatening and provocative, Russia has not violated any law. There is no specific international treaty that rules the international relations in the extraterrestrial space, or rather, it exists but it dates back to 1967: it is the Outer Space Treaty, drafted in a much simpler context than the current one, with less advanced technologies and in a cold-war climate in which bipolarity was reflected beyond the atmosphere. Today there are not only USA and Russia, but more and more States are also gaining “ground” in the space field and it would be necessary to reconsider the regulations to avoid the outbreak of a conflict and the implementation of hostile behaviours that cannot be sanctioned.

In the last years, several countries besides the USA have developed their military space programs: Russia and China, but also India, Iran, France, Israel and North Korea. This space arms race, if not regulated, can only be the prelude to future clashes. We don’t have to imagine the space wars we are used to seeing on the big screen, it would take little to trigger a conflict: it would be enough to block satellite transmissions or alter the signals emitted from space that control our daily life on earth. In any case, although not spectacular, they would have catastrophic effects on our everyday life.

To avoid this scenario, it is necessary to draft a new treaty that includes and regulates every possible eventuality that could occur in space. Nevertheless, Mike Hoversten, the first advisor for space law, international law and military operations at the US command acknowledged that in his opinion, for the international community to decide to start the procedures for a new treaty “there will have to be a significant event”. And as history teaches, significant events are usually synonymous with war or conflict.

So perhaps the U.S. decision to create a space-based armed force was not so utopistic after all.

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