Leading nations increase their influence in space, leaving behind the rest

(ORDO NEWS) — Satellites play an important role in the functioning of the Internet, television and are central to the Global Navigation System (GPS). They help provide state of the art weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, and play a huge role in modern military technology.

Countries that do not have their own satellites are forced to rely on others. For those who want to develop their own satellite infrastructure, there are fewer and fewer options today.

A researcher at the University of Arizona believes that disparities in access to satellites are already showing. In the not-too-distant future, the ability to mine resources from the surface of the moon and asteroids could be the main difference between the haves and have-nots in space.

Where to “park” the satellite?

With rapid commercialization, downsizing and a sharp drop in the cost of satellites in recent years, more countries can take advantage of space.

CubeSats are small, inexpensive, customizable satellites that are so easy to assemble that students can do it. Companies like SpaceX can launch one of these satellites into orbit relatively inexpensively, starting at $1,300 a pound. However, there are not many places where you can “park” a satellite in orbit around the Earth, and they quickly fill up.

The best place to place satellites is in geostationary orbit, about 22,250 miles (35,800 km) above the equator. A satellite in geostationary orbit rotates at the same speed as the Earth while staying directly over one spot above the Earth’s surface, which can be very useful for telecommunications, broadcasting and meteorological satellites.

There are only 1,800 geostationary orbital positions, and as of February 2022, 541 of them are occupied by active satellites. Countries and private companies have already occupied most of the unoccupied slots that open access to major markets, and satellites to fill them are currently being assembled or awaiting launch.

In the event that a new space power wants to place a weather satellite over a certain point in the Atlantic Ocean that is already occupied, it will either have to choose a less optimal place for the satellite, or buy services from the country occupying this place.

Orbital slots are allocated by a United Nations agency called the International Telecommunication Union. Slots are free, but they are distributed by country on a first-come, first-served basis.

When a satellite reaches the end of its 15-20 year lifespan, a country can simply replace it and resume its ownership of the slot. This effectively allows countries to maintain these positions indefinitely. Countries that already have the equipment to use the geostationary orbit have a big advantage over those that don’t.

Although geostationary orbital slots are the most attractive and limited, there are many other orbits around the Earth. They are also actively filling up, exacerbating the growing problem of lack of space.

Low Earth orbit is about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) above the surface. Satellites in low Earth orbit move quickly in a very busy environment. While this may be a good location for earth imaging satellites, it is not ideal for single communications satellites such as those used for television, radio and internet broadcasts.

Low Earth orbit can be used for communications if multiple satellites work together to form a constellation. Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are working on projects to put thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit over the next few years to provide Internet access around the world.

The first generation Starlink consists of 1,926 satellites, and the second generation is expected to launch another 30,000 satellites into orbit.

At the current rate of growth, the major space players will quickly enter geostationary and low Earth orbits, potentially monopolizing access to important satellite capabilities and exacerbating the space debris problem.

Access to resources in space

Orbital slots are an area where inequality already exists today. The future of space could be a gold rush for resources, and not everyone will benefit.

Asteroids contain an amazing amount of valuable minerals and metals. Later this year, NASA is launching a probe to explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche, which scientists estimate contains more than $10 quintillion worth of iron.

Exploiting such huge deposits of resources and transporting them to Earth could give a huge boost to the economic development of spacefaring nations, while creating an imbalance in relation to countries that are currently dependent on the export of minerals and metals.

Another very valuable resource in space is helium-3, a rare version of helium that scientists believe can be used in nuclear fusion reactions without producing radioactive waste.

While significant technological hurdles must be overcome before helium-3 becomes an affordable energy source, there are enough deposits on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system to meet the Earth’s energy needs for several centuries.

If the powerful space powers develop the technology to use and extract helium-3 and decide not to share the benefits with other countries, this could lead to serious inequalities.

Existing international space laws do not adequately regulate the functioning of the complex network of private companies and states competing for resources in space.

Countries unite in groups or “space blocs” to pursue their own interests. For example, two space blocks are planning to establish bases and potential mining operations on the Moon: the US-led Artemis Accord, and joint plans by China and Russia.

Today, the major players in space are setting standards for the exploitation of resources. There is a risk that instead of focusing on what is best for everyone on Earth, leading nations will act in their own interests, damaging the space environment and causing conflict. History shows that it is difficult to challenge already established international norms.

What will happen next?

Access to space is critical to the functioning of a modern state. Access to space will become increasingly important as humanity rapidly approaches the future of space hotels and colonies on Mars.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the founding document of space law, states that space must be used “for the benefit and in the interest of all nations”. The policies that are formed today will determine whether this will be the case in the future.

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