Is space war possible?

In today’s cover story, Mike Moore reflects on yesterday’s satellite collision and describes one nightmare scenario for space conflict: In a time of high tension, someone preemptively smashes spy satellites in low-earth orbits, creating tens of thousands of metal chunks and shards. Debris-tracking systems are overwhelmed, and low-earth orbits become so cluttered with metal that ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
588524_090213_cnes5.jpg
588524_090213_cnes5.jpg

In today's cover story, Mike Moore reflects on yesterday's satellite collision and describes one nightmare scenario for space conflict:

In today’s cover story, Mike Moore reflects on yesterday’s satellite collision and describes one nightmare scenario for space conflict:

In a time of high tension, someone preemptively smashes spy satellites in low-earth orbits, creating tens of thousands of metal chunks and shards. Debris-tracking systems are overwhelmed, and low-earth orbits become so cluttered with metal that new satellites cannot be safely launched. Satellites already in orbit die of old age or are killed by debris strikes.

The global economy, which is greatly dependent on a variety of assets in space, collapses. The countries of the world head back to a 1950s-style way of life, but there are billions more people on the planet than in the 50s. That’s a recipe for malnutrition, starvation, and wars for resources.

In an e-mail exchange with FP, the Center for Defense Information’s Theresa Hitchens explained why she also sees the crash as evdience that regulation for the use of space is badly needed:

It is both an “we told you so” moment, and an opportunity to make some policy changes. Industry and many experts have been saying for years that usable space was getting crowded, and that the possibility of serious collisions was growing. Thus, the growing clamor for space traffic management from many in the business; and the interest even among the telecommunications industry in developing more formal processes (although not regulation, as many of us believe necessary) for orbital data exchange and collision avoidance procedures. Obviously, the time has come and passed for these things to take shape.

On the policy opportunity end, it can only be hoped that this disaster will focus the minds of policy-makers on the need to find better ways to ensure the future security and sustainability of space. This also highlights the question regarding national and international security. Imagine if these two satellites were owned by national governments who were on the brink of war. Don’t you think one government might be blaming the other for “deliberately” causing the crash? Could a space accident cause a war on Earth? The likely answer is yes.

Image: CNES 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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