Send in the troops – there’s trouble on Mars

Moving target: The USA’s mystery X-37B space plane, rocketing into orbit again this Sunday. © AP

Is space the next war zone? As the superpowers step up their competing exploration programmes, experts worry that future conflicts could be decided outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Sunday was an anxious day for the US Air Force team at Cape Canaveral. The launch of its Atlas V rocket had already been postponed once. But, at last, there came a break in the weather and the spacecraft’s boosters roared into life, sending it hurtling skywards. Written on its nosecone were two words: “America Strong”.

The slogan was the only clue to the rocket’s purpose. On board was a X-37B space plane – an unmanned craft capable of spending more than two years in orbit before gliding back to Earth and landing on a runway, so that it can be used again. But what it was supposed to discover was a closely guarded secret.

The X-37B has been in operation for 10 years. One theory is that is spying on China’s orbiting space laboratory. Whatever the truth, the Pentagon’s announcement 18 months ago that it was creating a Space Command has added to alarm over extra-terrestrial rivalry between the global superpowers.

Space warfare could take many different forms, but the satellites on which every country depends for communications are an obvious target. Disabling them could leave a conventional army unable to function properly, and a nation’s infrastructure in chaos.

The Chinese, Russians, and Americans already have missiles which can shoot down objects in space.

Is space the next war zone?

Defying gravity

Some argue that the key element in warfare is cutting-edge technology. An army is useless without reliable communications and, since those are controlled by satellites, a country which has the upper hand in space will always come out on top.

Others say that war in space is a sci-fi fantasy. The future of war is more likely to be an individual carrying a backpack on to an aeroplane or into a concert hall – or a plane plunging into a building.

You Decide

  1. If you had to do military service in either the army, navy, air force – or space force, which would you choose?

Activities

  1. Design a spacecraft that could play a crucial role in a future conflict.

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu (544-496BC), Chinese general and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Conflict in space could be disastrous for everybody on Earth. Every satellite that was blown up would create a cloud of debris (scattered pieces) that would very probably collide with other satellites, hostile or not, causing further explosions. Eventually Earth could be surrounded by whole belts of debris, which would cripple our existing communications and make it impossible to send up new spacecraft. Scientists refer to this scenario as the Kessler Syndrome.
What do we not know?
Whether it is possible to enforce laws against space warfare. In 1967, the UN drew up the Outer Space Treaty, which says that space must only be used for peaceful purposes and must remain the territory of all mankind; over 100 countries signed it, including the US and USSR. But as the rivalry in space becomes more intense, experts are working to create a more up-to-date set of rules, called The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations.

Word Watch

Cape Canaveral
Chosen as a site for launches partly because of its nearness to the equator, which allows rockets to take extra velocity from the rotation of the Earth. Also rockets from this location are likely to crash into the sea – rather than into a populated area – if something goes wrong.
Atlas V
In Greek mythology, Atlas was a titan who rebelled against the gods and was forced to hold the heavens on his shoulders as a punishment.
Postponed
Put off until another date.
Hurtling
Moving at great speed.
Skywards
Towards the sky.
Nosecone
The cone-shaped nose at the front of a rocket, guided missile, or aircraft.
Slogan
A short phrase you can remember. Often used in adverts.
Unmanned
Without a person driving it.
Orbit
Going round a star, planet, or moon.
Pentagon
The headquarters of the US Defence Department, so-called because it has five sides.
Extra-terrestrial
Beyond the Earth. One of the most successful sci-fi films ever was ET the Extraterrestrial, about an alien who makes friends with a group of children.
Disabling
Stopping something from working.
Infrastructure
The basic systems and services, such as transport and power supplies, that a country needs to run effectively.

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