Race to Space: Race to Edge

Space Race 2.0. Is characterised by Individuals and enterprises flush with funds which are betting on a future in which space is more accessible, enjoyable and exploitable, and trips to distant planets become a reality. Dr Kiran Kumar, Former Chairman ISRO gave a clear insight into the Indian space programme during the Synergia Conclave 2019

Background

Asia's growing participation in the space race is indicative of the more substantial geopolitical competition in the region. The race to return to the moon, as well as to explore the moon and asteroids for mining and resource extraction, is likely to intensify in the coming years. With major companies like Space X spending billions, some experts are of the opinion that commercial exploration of space will become "sustainable and frequent" as early as 2035.

India struck an important milestone in its space journey in 2018 - scoring a perfect century of satellites launched into space. The PSLV C40 successfully placed the 100th satellite, Cartosat-2 series, a weather monitoring one into orbit in a smooth launch from the Sriharikota spaceport. It also launched 29 smaller satellites sequentially during a window of two hours of skilful manoeuvres. Every launch is a fresh test of a range of technology capabilities. PSLV C40 once again proves the mastery of ISRO on many of them. Along with the Cartosat and one more minisatellite of India, the launch vehicle put 28 satellites from 6 countries into the low earth orbit.

Analysis

Space remains the final frontier for mankind. India began its journey for its exploration since 1957. There is not a single area of human activity which is not impacted by space research- communications, remote sensing and earth observations, navigation, strategic posturing, met forecasting, disaster management- the list is endless. Today more than 40 nations are engaged in full-fledged space activities with over 100 nations utilising the space for one purpose or the other. The present cumulative commercial activity in space is estimated to be worth more than $ 360 billion 

The doyen of the Indian space programme, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, was extremely farsighted and despite our fledgeling status in this field, was able to strike a very collaborative and cooperative relationship with both the leading players in space- US and USSR and later Russia.  

For a country with the physical dimensions of India, Indian research sought solutions to India's growth and prosperity through the medium of space- so aptly illustrated by 1969 the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment or SITE project wherein educational TV programmes were beamed to remote villages with the help of NASA satellites. The experiment was successful, as it played a major role in helping develop India's own satellite program, INSAT and it showed that India could use advanced technology to fulfil the socio-economic needs of the country.  

Today India has recorded over 185 space missions with 73 space vehicles and over 107 satellites. ISRO is now working on advanced models of launch vehicles including reusable crafts and scramjet propulsion which will enable flights up to the upper levels of the stratosphere.

There is a remarkable sense of cooperation between various major space agencies with the common thread being 'Space for common good'. Sharing of data is commonplace amongst world agencies as there is a realisation that this precision data is for the good of mankind. Space governance is defined by common security in outer space and principles of a shared architecture.

Space governance has seen exemplary cooperation and the existence of many international agencies is indicative of this global spirit. Example of this collaborative effort are World Met Org (WMO), GEOSS (Global Earth Observation System of Systems) a set of coordinated, independent Earth observation, information and processing systems that interact and provide access to diverse information for a broad range of users in both public and private sectors, CGMS - the Coordination Group for Meteorological Satellites - a group for global coordination of meteorological satellite systems, CEOS -the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites an international coordinating mechanism involved in the management of international, civil, spaceborne missions designed to observe and study the Earth and UNOOSA-(United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs) that promotes international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space, and in the utilisation of space science and technology for sustainable economic and social development.

Outer space is also emerging as the fourth arena of warfare. Hostile state and non-state actors can damage Indian space assets. ASAT capability has created some deterrence against potential attackers and protection of our own spaceborne assets becomes important. The danger is not only from kinetic threats, like ASAT projectiles but also from cyber-attacks. The systems need to be hardened and shielded from all kinds of attacks

Space-based weapons, thanks to their global reach and lethality, are considered to be destabilising. The existing international space law regime prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space but is silent on the deployment of conventional weapons. 

A comprehensive space security policy would have several components. Foremost, an apex policy-making body will be required to take a holistic and comprehensive view of space security. This would be a multi-stakeholder body, which can be chaired by the national security adviser. This body will need to be supported by an executive agency, which would have representatives of all stakeholders, including the military, ministries of external affairs and defence, ISRO and DRDO.

The cluttering of the space around the Earth is a serious growing problem. Currently, 4987 objects are in orbit around the Earth, which includes over 1900 operational satellites. Monitoring of space and its usage will require careful regulation to avoid incidents.

The explosion in spaceborne systems is just about, to begin with, private players like Starlinks planning to have mega-constellations of up to 4000 satellites beaming all type of data from broadband internet to medical links to every corner of the globe. By 2024 all are broadband requirements will be met by space-bound systems and terrestrial undersea cables will be history. The increasing demand for clean reusable energy has forced scientists to look at outer space where huge farms of solar panel, assembled in space, would be able to beam electricity to Earth. As far as space is concerned, imagination is not the limit for its exploitation for the good of mankind.

Assessment

  • The future of space is not just an engineering problem. The bigger challenge is in solving the biological problem. We lack understanding of how organic molecules in our bodies and plants will react to radiation in outer space.   
  • New research technologies are creating paradigm shifts in a space mission, including the mars oxygen experiment or MOXIE in 2020. This is the first major experiment using resources that are available locally – to extract oxygen for water or to split carbon dioxide to get carbon monoxide and oxygen.
  • Internationally binding regulations and norms have to be formulated and imposed to prevent cluttering of space, systems to clear away dead satellites and space objects must be devised and most important, spaceborne weapons- conventional or non-conventional- must be totally banned.

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