On the occasion of the publication by the Canadian consulting firm BCA Research of a study on the geopolitics of space, we interviewed one of its authors, Guy Russell.
Guy Russell lives and works in Montreal, and works as a senior analyst for geopolitics and U.S. political strategy at BCA Research, a commodity and energy strategy firm that provides independent global macroeconomic surveys. Recently, this space enthusiast has been examining the investment opportunities that space offers, and the risks posed by the geopolitics of space, otherwise known as astropolitics. The terrestrial rivalries between the great nations - China, Russia, the United States and Europe - in terms of geopolitics tend to be transported into space, creating a new war of influence and new risks. Space exploration, mining the Moon, and opening up space to the private sector, astropolitics is a new tool for exploration to better understand what is being played out in the stars today and tomorrow.
What do you mean by the term " astropolitics " ? What motivated this study and for whom is it intended ?
At BCA Research, we define astropolitics as the geopolitics of space. Essentially, astropolitics is an extension of geopolitics, meaning that geopolitical events and risks on Earth can and do impact space-based assets and activities. We believe that space is often overlooked and not given enough attention in the context of geopolitics. Space assets are an integral part of everyday life on Earth. People who follow geopolitics and its impact on the global economy and financial system are more familiar with terrestrial geopolitical risks. We wanted to remind those same people of the geopolitical risks that occur in space and the importance of space in today's world. It is important to note that geopolitics can be considered the mother of space travel. The development of missiles during World War II and the rivalry between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War directly gave rise to space travel. Space advances have been peaceful in the last seven decades, as the post-war international political order was relatively stable. Today, great power competition is resuming, motivating a return to military uses of space, even as civilian progress continues. That said, the Astropolitics report is aimed at a broad audience, from space-obsessed people (like me) to people with a general interest in space, geopolitics, world affairs, macroeconomics, and financial markets.
What's the primary finding of your study ?
We found that geopolitical risks are not only related to Earth, but also exist in space, and that they increase as nations increase their activities in space for economic, technological, and military benefits.
Should we see a link between the current geopolitical tensions and the rise in space launches ?
Actually, there is a strong link between geopolitical risk and space launches. Nations continue to increase their space budgets, both for commercial and military reasons, to leverage space for competitive advantage. At the same time, global geopolitical risk has experienced a secular upward trend since the late 1990s. There is great power competition between the United States and its rivals, which fuels geopolitics and other things, like wars. Having a presence in space offers several strategic advantages over countries that do not. As on Earth, space is another arena in which countries compete for global dominance.
Do you see the surge in activity over the last two years as sustainable ?
It is likely that the surge in activity over the last two years will continue. The cost of space launches and the technologies that go with them, such as satellites, is falling. It is cheaper and easier to launch a satellite today than ever before. More and more private operators are entering the space industry, materials are being reused and last longer, and nations are investing more in the space industry. In addition, we believe that geopolitical risk will remain high in the future, meaning that nations will continue to use space assets to gain competitive advantages over their rivals. All of these trends point to an increase in launches and space activities in the future.
Will the declining costs of accessing space continue ?
The answer is yes, costs will decline as private operators enter the space industry, and that is what we are seeing. Private operators also bring with them new technologies, such as SpaceX's partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket. This type of technology reduces launch costs. Investments, both private and public, are also on the rise. Increased investment in the space industry is expected to contribute to increased research and development budgets, which will allow for the development of new technologies and know-how and ultimately reduce costs.
What are the risks associated with this dramatic increase in orbital activity
Low Earth orbit is already quite crowded. Tens of thousands of pieces of debris of various sizes are orbiting the Earth. Thousands of them pose catastrophic collision risks to orbiting satellites. Often, satellites perform tactical maneuvers to avoid space debris. We expect thousands more satellites to be launched this decade. Low Earth orbit will become even more crowded and the risk of collision will increase. Satellite maneuvers will become more frequent, increasing the risk of human error. Manned space stations, such as the International Space Station, will also have to cope with a "dirtier" low Earth orbit and make more frequent orbital adjustments. Finally, there will be more rocket launches, which means more space junk will accumulate, with rockets depositing booster debris and other spare parts in low Earth orbit.
The United States and China are now the two main players in the field, while Russia is holding out. What place is left for Europe ?
Europe plays an important role in space exploration and activity through the European Space Agency. The continent is a leader in Earth observation, especially in climate. Europe produces the astronauts, rockets, satellites and other equipment used in space. Europe is also home to SES and Eutelsat, two major satellite companies. And Arianespace, which develops next-generation rockets like Ariane 6 and Vega C, is expected to compete with SpaceX, giving Europe a platform to launch low-cost rockets and payloads into low-Earth orbit more often. However, a key difference between Europe and countries like the United States and China is that space exploration and activity are not designated as a top national priority. This means that the budget that the European Space Agency receives from the European Union member states is lower than that of the United States and China. While the total budgets of the latter countries are not fully known to the public, their presence and the speed with which they launch new space programs are indicative of their financial commitment to space. The budget allocation must also take into account the European Union member states, which do not consider space to be a top priority compared to the large member states. That said, funding for the European Space Agency is expected to increase over the next few years, which is significant. Policymakers are increasingly recognizing the benefits of space assets, indicating that Europe will continue to play a major role in space, if not a larger one.
How is the ratio of public/private investment in space changing?
During the past seventy years, the space industry has been dominated by public spending by national space agencies. However, today, and over the past decade, private sector investments have been robust and continue to grow. The most significant impact of private investment has been on launch costs. Companies like SpaceX have had a significant impact on launch costs, and will continue to do so in the future. Private investment is also well distributed in the space industry. Whether it is angel investment, venture capital, or corporate investment, the space industry is receiving more private monetary attention from nations around the world. This will only increase as costs decrease. Governments are also spending more, maintaining their dominance over the private sector, but less than in recent decades. Government spending on the space industry will increase with the associated economic and military gains.
Is the Moon the new El Dorado ?
From what we know today, the Moon could be a source of immense wealth. There are thought to be large amounts of rare earths and gases, and even isotopes like helium 3 - a proposed game-changer for fusion energy - on and in the surface of the Moon. But we don't know enough to be sure. Mining the Moon has been touted by several space agencies as " possible " but it's hard to believe it could happen in the near future. The operational risks alone would be difficult to assess. And even if it were possible, and even if it were soon, what would mining on the Moon look like? Who would have a legal right to a portion of the Moon and on what basis? And by what means could a company or a nation protect its mining "interests"? All of these questions invite high-risk scenarios in a high-risk environment, causing the Moon to lose its status as the next El Dorado.
Should international laws and norms evolve and how ?
International laws and treaties are outdated. Most date back to before 2000. To date, the international community has not reached a global consensus on laws or norms, despite efforts to increase transparency in space operations, avoid deliberate debris-generating events, and prevent the placement of weapons in space. China and Russia continue to endorse a draft "Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects. They have an interest in limiting U.S. domination, while the United States opposes the treaty. Although this draft promotes the "no-first-placement" of weapons in space, it does not address a variety of ASAT weapons and lacks meaningful verification mechanisms. Furthermore, although Russia and China publicly insist that space is a peaceful domain, both continue to develop ASAT weapons. While there is a need for laws and norms to evolve continuously, the current global geopolitical context and fractured world order make it difficult for space laws and norms to evolve. And, even then, enforcement of any new law or standard would be another challenge. This means that risks in space, and those emanating from Earth and affecting space activities, will remain high.
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