Commentary |
29 May 2021

Catching up in the space race isn’t a moon shot

China’s ‘God of Fire’ mission foreshadows a scramble for control of space — and Australia is being left behind. Originally published in The Australian.

Alan Dupont
Alan Dupont

The successful landing of China’s Zhurong “God of Fire” exploration rover on Mars is a major leap forward for the country’s ambitious space program, foreshadowing greater competition for control of space and its vast resources.

Rapid, reliable access to space is now an economic and national security imperative. Tthe Bank of America expects the value of the global space industry, estimated at more than $US424 billion in 2019, to reach $US1.4 trillion by 2030. There are around 3800 operational satellites orbiting the planet. Many more are planned, raising concerns about their vulnerability to attack by “malign actors” and damage from the estimated 128 million pieces of space junk in orbit.

As the space race hots up, Australia risks falling behind. Three countries have spacecraft in orbit around Mars. One of them is the United Arab Emirates, hardly a global power. New Zealand can launch rockets into space, unlike Australia. We were one of the last members of the OECD rich countries club to establish a space agency. We don’t have a well-funded national space strategy or the ability to regularly launch Australian rockets and their payloads from Australian soil. This means we can’t control our own space destiny or capitalise on emerging commercial opportunities.

A recent report by the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, says that access to space could “revolutionise Earth’s economy, security and potentially human civilisation itself” because it is a virtually unlimited source of energy and contains “a radical abundance of resources for humankind”. Once dismissed as an improbable dream, space colonisation and mining is on the verge of becoming a reality as human space activity transitions from a focus on discovery to commercialisation and security.

The new era is likely to be qualitatively different from the past. Once dominated by the US and Russia, many other nations are positioning themselves for a piece of the lucrative space pie as entry costs continue to fall. India, an emerging Asian space power, successfully sent a probe to Mars in 2014 for the relatively modest sum of $US74 million, 10 times less than the cost of NASA’s Maven Mars mission. Tiny Luxembourg runs more satellites than Germany. Developing states and shoestring companies are building satellites and launching rockets at a dizzying rate.

Big corporations are getting in on the act. Elon Musk’s Space X has captured not just the imagination of space junkies but the wallets of hard-headed bureaucrats and generals because the private sector is better equipped than government to innovate, raise capital and take on risk.

Even autocracies recognise the importance of private-public partnerships for developing national space capabilities. China has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into nearly a dozen notionally private space launch start-ups since 2014. But the US is still unmatched in its capacity to mobilise private money, commanding more than half of total global venture capital. Over the next 30 years the frontier of commercial space will move to cislunar space — the area between the Earth and moon — and eventually the moon itself. The international space station, which has been circling the Earth for over 20 years, will be followed by NASA’s Moon orbiting “gateway”. This will provide vital support for a sustainable, long-term human return to the lunar surface and a staging point for deep space exploration. A permanent moon settlement is likely by the early 2030s.

The significance of these developments is that economic activities in space will become more important than those they enable on Earth. Inevitably, the strategic stakes will rise as cislunar space – and the moon itself – is seen as valuable real estate to be protected and exploited. Whether this is for the common good, or the strongest nations, remains to be seen although the auguries are not good.

Throughout history, armies have followed or accompanied adventurers, missionaries and entrepreneurs. The danger is that space will become increasingly militarised as states compete for access to resources and control over the interplanetary highways and their way-stations. The three major space nations all regard space as a critical war-fighting domain. Long dominant in space, the US is facing an unprecedented challenge from a technologically rising China while Russia remains a significant space player.

China’s progress has been remarkable. In less than two decades, the People’s Republic has transformed from a space neophyte to the second most powerful space nation after the US. The success of its Mars probe makes it only the third country to perform a soft landing on the Red Planet and the second to drive a robotic rover over its surface.

Last month, China launched the first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station into orbit, a significant milestone in its quest to establish a permanent human presence in space by 2022. It has already successfully brought back soil samples from the lunar surface and is the first country to send a probe to survey the dark side of the moon. Last year China completed more orbital launches than the US.

In his quest to make China the dominant space nation, President Xi Jinping is using tactics previously employed in the tech and trade wars with the US. He has leveraged all the resources of China Inc. to outspend competitors and acquire their technology in a whole-of-government approach that fuses civil, defence and commercial capabilities but prioritises the People’s Liberation Army. China’s space sector “is largely government-funded and military-led” says space expert Steffi Paladini.

Donald Trump’s much criticised and parodied US Space Force was largely a response to the much earlier establishments of similar space commands by China and Russia amid American disquiet that both countries are working to target US and allied satellites and displace the US in space. In its latest global assessment report, the US intelligence community says that the PLA plans to “match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”

A particular worry is the PLA’s focus on an array of counter-space capabilities designed to destroy, or disable, essential communications, intelligence and targeting satellites that the US and Australia rely upon to prevent, fight and win wars. These range from powerful, sophisticated ground-based lasers that can interfere with delicate satellite optical sensors to directed energy weapons, missiles and killer satellites that can ram other satellites while in orbit. Counter-space weapons are integral to the strategies the PLA would employ in any conflict with the US, including over Taiwan.

The PLA is determined to deny the US the ability to see from space after watching US forces overwhelm the Afghan Taliban in 2001 and Saddam Hussein’s army during the Iraq War in 2003. These battlefield successes were rooted in space dominance. But Chinese planners also saw a weakness. US satellites were largely undefended. If they could be taken down, the US ability to wage war would be severely constrained. Better still, a billion-dollar satellite could be destroyed by a million-dollar missile.

“Then came the new idea,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Broad in a New York Times analysis. “Every aspect of American space power was controlled from the ground by powerful computers. If penetrated, the brains of Washington’s space fleets might be degraded or destroyed. China began to incorporate cyberattacks into its military exercises, primarily in first strikes against enemy networks.” As if to prove the point, in 2007 and 2008 suspected Chinese hackers briefly took control of two civilian Landsat and Terra imaging satellites that orbited low like US military reconnaissance satellites.

The US has responded by finding a conventional edge of its own, harnessing the entrepreneurial and transformative strengths of its tech sector to produce swarms of smaller satellites. These are much more difficult to target and far cheaper than the billion-dollar behemoths that are sitting ducks for the new classes of Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons.

“These innovative leaps,” says Broad, are designed to “do for American space forces what Steve Jobs did for terrestrial gadgets, running rings around the calcified ministries of authoritarian states.” But until these smaller constellations are developed, and fully ­deployed, America’s space architecture is vulnerable.

China’s burgeoning space co-operation with Russia is also troubling Washington. Russia’s space power is much diluted since the heady days of Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. But Moscow still harbours astral ambitions, operates a network of satellites and ground stations and has invested heavily in counter-space weapons for much the same reasons as China.

In March, Russia and China announced plans for a joint lunar space station to develop a “complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in the orbit of the moon”. This is likely to be established near a Lagrange Point adjacent to the Moon, an area of enhanced orbital stability in the Earth-Moon system and a favoured, but contested, location for deploying the research and military reconnaissance satellites of the future.

The best science fiction writers habitually anticipate real world events. Star Wars is great entertainment, but George Lucas’s blockbuster movie illuminates the dark side of unbridled cosmic competition. Preventing space wars will require a new space order underpinned by internationally agreed rules of the celestial road. Without such rules, geopolitical rivalry and tensions on Earth will inevitably spill over into space.

The problem is that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which laid down the foundational principles of human space exploration, is short on detail and didn’t envisage today’s governance issues. The Artemis Accords are a US-led attempt to establish a set of rules governing the settlement and exploration of the moon and beyond, as well as the exploitation of space’s abundant resources. Only eight countries, including Australia, have signed. China and Russia are unlikely to join because they want to be the new rule setters in space. An authoritarian space order is unlikely to be compatible with our interests or values.

This is the context for Australia’s decision to launch its own military space command, headed by senior Air Force officer Catherine Roberts. The Space Division, as it will be known, aims to better integrate defence space activities, capabilities and expertise. It will determine how the Australian Defence Force will operate in space; ensure the ADF can develop, sustain and protect national space assets; and be the primary point of co-ordination with allies and other partners on defence space matters.

Air Force chief Mel Hupfeld says that “we’re not going to militarise space”. But space has been militarised for decades. What the ADF won’t do is develop weapons to attack other countries’ satellites.

The establishment of a defence space command is a necessary complement to the civilian-led Australian Space Agency, established by the Turnbull government in 2018. But we are starting from a long way back. Without major investment we risk remaining a bit player despite some world-class space capabilities and expertise. It will be difficult to realise the ambitious goal of 20,000 new jobs, a tripling of the space sector’s contribution to GDP and a $1 billion pipeline of inbound capital investment by 2030 without a national space strategy and government preparedness to assume more risk.

An overarching national space strategy should align our existing civil space strategy with Defence’s space strategy, which is due out later this year. Most space capabilities are dual-purpose. Defence concerns once drove space commerce and exploration. Now commercial developments are driving defence capabilities and concerns. The two are intertwined.

The ASA is essentially a policy setting and co-ordination body. It has little money of its own to invest. Defence has the money but is reluctant to invest in space assets, preferring them to be developed and owned by the private sector. The private sector is unwilling to invest in sovereign launch infrastructure absent government support, preferably in the form of equity or preferential loans.

The Morrison government has not done enough to support the small companies and start-ups that will form the backbone of a national space industry. Established to accelerate infrastructure development, the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility has been slow to provide low interest loans to small, space-ready companies that are of insufficient size to attract standard private loans.

Developing a sovereign launch capability is the key to establishing a viable Australian space sector and hardening our defences. Reliance on other countries to launch our satellites is a key strategic vulnerability as space becomes more valuable and contested.

The argument that we need control but not necessarily ownership doesn’t stand the pub test. If we don’t own the required ground stations, launch facilities, rockets and satellites we can’t guarantee they will be available when we most need them, a lesson that Covid has taught us on vaccines and China on supply chains.

Satellites can be launched more cheaply and safely from sites in northern Australia than almost anywhere else in the world because of the region’s closeness to the equator, sparse population and low levels of potentially disruptive maritime and air traffic. Proximity to the equator means that rockets can benefit from the gravitational sling shot effect of the Earth’s rotation, reducing the amount of fuel needed to reach orbit.

Increasingly important for defence and national security, a robust and sustainable space sector could be a foundation stone of the post-COVID Australian economy. But without a more united approach, renewed government leadership and increased investment our space aspirations are unlikely to be realised.