Home Supporting structure How space exploration is linked to power struggles on Earth

How space exploration is linked to power struggles on Earth

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As more countries developed their own space agencies, several international collaborative groups emerged. These include the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and the Advisory Committee for Space Data Systems.

In 1975, 10 European nations founded the European Space Agency. In 1998, the United States and Russia joined forces to build the International Space Station, which is now supported by 15 countries.

These multinational enterprises were primarily focused on scientific collaboration and data exchange.

The emergence of space blocks

The European Space Agency, which today has 22 nations, could be considered among the first space blocks. But a more pronounced shift towards this type of power structure can also be observed after the end of the Cold War. Countries that shared interests on the ground began coming together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.

Over the past five years, several new space blocks have emerged with varying levels of space capabilities. These include the African Space Agency, with 55 member states; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with seven Member States; and the Arab Space Coordination Group, with 12 member states from the Middle East.

These groups allow nations to work closely with others in their blocks, but the blocks also compete with each other. Two recent space blocs – the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian Moon Accord – are an example of such competition.

Race to the Moon

The Artemis Accords were launched in October 2020. They are led by the United States and currently include 18 member countries. The group’s goal is to get people back to the Moon by 2025 and establish a guiding framework for exploration and mining on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The mission aims to build a research station at the south pole of the Moon with a support lunar space station called Gateway.

Similarly, in 2019, Russia and China agreed to collaborate on a mission to send people to the south pole of the Moon by 2026. This joint Sino-Russian mission also aims to eventually build a lunar base and to place a space station in lunar orbit. .

That these blocs do not collaborate to accomplish similar missions on the Moon indicates that strategic interests and rivalries on the ground have been carried over to space.

Any nation can join the Artemis Accords. But Russia and China – along with a number of their allies on Earth – have not done so because some see the deals as an effort to extend the US-dominated international order to space. outer space.

Similarly, Russia and China are planning to open their future lunar research station to all interested parties, but no Artemis countries have shown interest. The European Space Agency has even halted several joint projects it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the United States and Japan.

The impact of space blocks on the ground

In addition to seeking power in space, countries also use spatial blocks to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.

An example is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which was established in 2005. Led by China, it includes Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey.

While its general focus is the development and launch of satellites, the organization’s primary goal is to expand and standardize the use of China’s BeiDou navigation system, China’s version of GPS. Countries using the system could become dependent on China, as is the case with Iran.

The role of private space companies

There has been a phenomenal growth in commercial activities in space over the past decade. As a result, some researchers see a future of space cooperation defined by shared commercial interests. In this scenario, commercial entities act as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space.

However, commercial enterprises are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space. Under current international space law, any company that operates in space does so as an extension and under the jurisdiction of the government of its home country.

The dominance of states over corporations in space affairs was clearly illustrated by the Ukrainian crisis. As a result of state sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating with Russia.

Given the current legal framework, it seems highly likely that states – not commercial entities – will continue to dictate the rules in space.

Spatial blocks of collaboration or conflict

I believe that in the future, state formations, such as space blocs, will be the primary means by which states advance their national interests in space and on the ground. There are many benefits when nations come together and form spatial blocks. Space is tough, so pooling resources, manpower and know-how makes sense. However, such a system also has inherent dangers.

History offers many examples that the more rigid alliances become, the more conflict is likely to ensue. The growing rigidity of two alliances – the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance – at the end of the 19th century is often cited as the main trigger for the First World War.

A major lesson from this is that as long as existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world can still avoid open conflict in space. Maintaining a focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs, while keeping political rivalries at bay, will help secure the future of international cooperation in space.

Svetla Ben-Itzhak is assistant professor of space and international relations at Air University.

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