China this weekend achieved something only the US and the Soviet Union have managed before: successfully landing a spacecraft with a surface rover on Mars. Its success marks another stride towards the country’s aim of becoming a “space power in all respects”. Last month it launched into orbit the first part of a permanent space station. In the more distant future, Beijing has intentions to send astronauts to the moon.
Yet with relations with the US now so poor, Beijing’s space ambitions add another potential flashpoint between today’s superpowers — on top of tensions in the South China Sea, or Washington’s potential boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics over the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The competition is not just between state space agencies. China has more than 150 companies vying to build satellites and launch rockets to meet ballooning demand for extraterrestrial infrastructure and services. Beijing is also forging space co-operation with Moscow, agreeing this year to work together to build a lunar research base.
So broad are China’s space ambitions that it even has a project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence using a 500-metre radio telescope called the “eye of heaven”. The US abandoned publicly-disclosed federal funding for ET searches decades ago, although Nasa is inching back into the field.
All this activity highlights not only China’s geostrategic ambitions but how space is becoming an increasingly crowded frontier. According to the Space Foundation, a US non-profit organisation, some 1,200 spacecraft were deployed in 2020, triple the total for 2019. Commercial satellite deployments were up by 477 per cent in 2020 compared with the year earlier.
The utopian glow that accompanied the first celestial voyages of the 1960s is dimming. The principle that space should be “the province of all mankind” — enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty adopted by 109 countries — is bumping up against commercial imperatives and national security concerns.
To prevent tensions from spiralling, the international community should strive towards establishing norms of governance and laws in space. The estimated value of the space economy last year — a record $385bn — should be enough to focus minds. So should the fact that much of the networked world we live in, including the global financial system, is enabled by satellite-based communications.
Against this background, the utility of creating internationally recognised rules for space industries should be clear. Implementation, however, is much more complex in an environment dominated by US-China rivalries that is already generating an arms race in the space domain.
A good place to start would be with the problem of space debris. A proliferation of space junk, which is added to by most launches, threatens to trigger a chain reaction of orbital collisions from which no country’s space assets would be safe. Several organisations, including the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, have published collaborative guidelines that suggest best practices for sustainable space operations.
But in spite of such efforts, few international norms and standards exist. The US and China — as well as other space powers such as Russia and India — should put aside their strategic rivalries and start to work in earnest on setting forth rules of conduct in space. Such co-operation would do nothing to restrain the space arms race under way but it would at least shore up the foundations of civilian space use.