UK to launch new military space command

Star wars: The laser cannon has moved from science fiction to reality. © EA

Will World War III be fought in space? A new space command, a national cyber force, and an artificial intelligence agency will be part of Britain’s defence transformation programme.

A satellite explodes in space. The kinetic kill vehicle that smashed into it shatters. The debris mingles in earth’s orbit and, below, lights flicker out. Phones and computers go dead.

This vision of future war is one the UK government has decided to invest in. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an increase in defence funding.

Countries looking for military advantage will soon require technology for destroying or jamming communications satellites, as well as for defending them.

France has announced plans to equip its military satellites with lasers.

It joins a group of countries preparing for space combat.

The USA created a branch of the military for extra-terrestrial conflict, “Space Force”. Some mocked President Trump for it, but other countries are following his lead. This year, NATO declared space to be a legitimate theatre of war.

Glimpses of what this might look like are available. In 2007, China launched a kinetic kill vehicle to destroy one of its own satellites in low earth orbit. Russia tested an anti-satellite projectile.

Some suggest space could be where the next war starts.

While no territory can be claimed in space, interfering with one another’s satellites may be a way to test diplomatic boundaries.

Will World War III be fought in space?

Space race

The future is here. In one sense, wars are already fought in space. Without communications satellites, most military operations would stop. It is logical that war will come to space. World powers would not be investing in this front if they did not think conflict likely.

This is science fiction. Just like flying cars, space combat has captured the imagination but is not realistic. Weapons of mass destruction are banned in space and no missile from earth can reach a satellite. The front for the next war is online.

You Decide

  1. Should the government spend money on spacecraft when it could use that money to end homelessness?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have to colonise Mars. Make a list of the jobs that you would need people to do in order for the colony to be successfully established.

Some People Say...

“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”

Yuri Gagarin, (1934 - 68) Russian Cosmonaut and the first human in space

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that conflict and military pressure have driven many innovations in space exploration. The rockets used to go into space were developed from ones the Germans used to attack London in WWII. It was the pressures of the Cold War that encouraged Russia and the USA to develop their space programmes. In 1958, the US made plans to demonstrate its military might by detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon. Luckily, the plan was soon scrapped.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is whether combat in space is currently worth the effort. The calculations involved in attacking a satellite require considerable advance planning, but the real obstacle is something called the Kessler Syndrome. Every object destroyed in or near earth’s orbit would continue its journey as fragments, which could collide with other satellites. This could soon make it impossible to launch anything into space. Fighting would then become impossible relatively quickly.

Word Watch

Kinetic kill vehicle
This is a weapon for attacking satellites that uses only its own momentum, or kinetic energy to inflict its damage. It is typically a missile without an explosive warhead. Satellites orbiting the earth are travelling so fast that the kinetic energy of almost any object that could hit them would be enormous.
Low earth orbit.
Depending on what distance a satellite is from earth it is categorised into three kinds of orbit. Low earth orbit is the closest, which means that the satellite is moving fastest. Most of the really important satellites are at the highest orbit, called geostationary orbit.
Territory
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty declared that space was “the province of all mankind”. No individual or nation can make a territorial claim on space, which makes sense, when you consider that the word territory comes from the Latin word for Earth.

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