Despite conflicts on Earth, satellites orbit in peace. But use of Elon Musk’s Starlink to aid Ukraine has Russia looking to the sky with hostile eyes.
A rocket booster carrying three Gonets-M satellites and the first Skif-D satellite of the Sfera programme lifts off from a Russian launch pad, 23 October 2022. (Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP)
Commercial Starlink satellites can be spotted orbiting in a neat line across the night sky.
Launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, following a plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the satellites boost Kyiv’s military muscle by enabling the country to monitor and coordinate drones that locate and target Russian military hardware and soldiers. It has been an effective strategy.
They also serve to remind Moscow that Russia is outmatched in satellite power.
In 1957, the Soviet Union electrified the world with the launch of Sputnik, the first-ever satellite to orbit the Earth. It was during the Cold War between the superpowers, and the United States was shocked by the success of the Soviet space programme — and anxious about the military implications.
Sputnik kicked off what become known as the Space Race. The result was remarkable achievements by both nations in human space flight, rocket and satellite technology and, finally, the Apollo moon missions.
Above Earth, nations cooperate.
Despite their rivalry, Moscow and Washington signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1971 Liability Convention to protect space and the sovereign objects — spacecraft — in space. The two nations also negotiated joint space projects starting in the 1970s.
Cooperation continues today with the International Space Station, where Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts work and live together for six-month stints as they orbit the Earth every 92 minutes.
Space is where international science collaboration happens. Russia has been an instrumental partner in space for the European Space Agency, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other national space agencies.
Back on Earth, the deputy director of Russia’ Foreign Ministry has threatened to extend the war in Ukraine into space.
On October 26 at the United Nations, Konstantin Vorontsov called commercial satellites, which he termed “quasi-civilian infrastructure” used by the Ukrainian government, “legitimate targets for retaliation.”
Attacking satellites is a lose-lose scenario.
The Ukrainian government could have access to more satellite data from the American Maxar and Iridium satellite networks and friendly European nations.
Although they are trying to catch up, the Russians can depend on much less satellite data. According to the U.S. non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists, Russia has only 172 satellites in orbit as compared to 3,433 U.S. satellites.
In October, Russia launched a trio of Gonets — “messenger” in Russian — communication satellites. But Russia has struggled to update their communication and surveillance satellite fleet as they have become increasingly dependent on Western technology in the last two decades.
Some of this hardware and software technology was cut off by Western nations after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The sanctions that followed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February are even more severe and far reaching.
Would Russia use military action to target Starlink and other Western satellites? Although Russia has “stalked” U.S. spy satellites, known as “tail-gating,” they have never attacked them.
Can orbital space become unsafe?
Whitman Cobb, professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and author of “Privatizing Peace: How Commerce Can Reduce Conflict in Space,” said that attacks by a country on satellites would be a “lose-lose” scenario.
“Not only would the space environment be cluttered with debris, making it harder to operate there, but it would be open season on all satellites including their own,” said Cobb.
She noted that losing satellites “could have significant economic repercussions that would not be isolated to one country alone.”
The world has already seen the far-reaching consequences of destroying satellites.
Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon in November 2021, destroying a defunct Soviet-era Kosmos satellite still in orbit. The resultant space debris endangered the International Space Station (ISS) carrying Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts.
All seven space travellers had to take emergency measures and evacuate to escape capsules, ready to flee if the ISS was badly damaged.
Are treaties more than a waste of space?
That event, widely condemned as irresponsible, illustrated concerns about what is known as “the Kessler effect.” Kessler, a NASA scientist, pointed out that debris from a destroyed satellite could spiral out of control and knock out many other space craft. It was used as the premise of the film “Gravity.”
Would Russia be willing to break the space treaties they have signed?
Existing space treaties have not been openly broken, but many countries have used technology to jam satellite transmissions, to use laser-dazzling to blind spy satellites and to hack satellite data.
As the space environment becomes increasingly crowded and vital for scientific, commercial and military purposes, there has been a call for space diplomacy.
Might the Ukraine conflict create opportunity for brave politicians to do so?
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(Click here for a diagram showing the constellation of existing satellites — Starlink, MAXAR, Iridium and more.)
Three questions to consider:
- Should more schools and universities offer courses in space history and diplomacy?
- Is it widely understood how much we depend on satellite technology for communications and Earth observation data such as weather reports and climate-change monitoring?
- Does media coverage of human spaceflight create an unbalanced public understanding of space technology?
Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades. She is chair of The Rory Peck Trust and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as Ambassador for the Science Museum in London.