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Space 2060 and Australia

Posted By on September 16, 2019 @ 14:30

The US Air Force Space Command has just released a thought-provoking report [1], The future of space 2060 and implications for US strategy. As the title suggests, it’s looking ahead to the possible ‘space futures’ that might emerge by 2060.

The report argues that economic, political, technological and military trends indicate that a ‘tipping point’ has been passed and space is fast becoming a key element of national power. China, the report notes, is ‘executing a long-term civil, commercial and military strategy to explore and economically develop the cislunar domain with the explicit aim of displacing the US as the leading space power’.

The focus on the moon and cislunar space—the region around the moon with a relatively shallow gravity well that makes it easier to access other locations such as near-earth asteroids (see diagram below)—throughout demonstrates sophisticated [2] thinking [3] on the nature of space power.

The moon as a rocket platform

This diagram shows the delta-v (and thus energy) required to reach various points from the earth and the moon, calculated using vis-viva equation [4]. Not to scale.

Source: Jatan Mehta, ‘Launching rockets from the Moon is our ticket to a home on Mars [5]’, Medium, 23 December 2017.

By no longer limiting our gaze to the region between low-earth orbit (LEO, from 160 kilometres to 2,000 kilometres above the earth’s surface) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO, at 35,786 kilometres), the report forces practitioners to think anew about how space competition might evolve as major powers extend their civil, commercial and military activities to the moon and its surrounding region. As our perspective on space terrain expands to encompass the cislunar region, it becomes more challenging for the US and its allies to develop strategies for defending their security interests, and commercial advantage, by ensuring access and presence.

Beijing is paying attention [6] to this new high ground too. Some commentators suggest that a new space race between China and the US is on the horizon. That might include a race [7] to determine a new order in space, in addition to establishing control over key regions of cislunar space.

The report posits eight scenarios for designing a long-term US national space strategy. They range from optimistic futures in which the US retains leadership and maintains laws and regulatory processes to support global civil, commercial and military activities that maintain peace, prosperity and human presence on the high frontier (referred to as the ‘Star Trek’ scenario) through to negative scenarios in which China dominates space and shapes the rules to benefit itself at the expense of US space leadership (named ‘Zheng He’ for the Chinese explorer and admiral).

Some assumptions are made—notably, that the new drive to return US astronauts to the moon in the 2020s is successful. In practical terms, America is well placed to achieve these goals, given the dramatic fall in the cost of accessing space as a result of the transformation of commercial space capabilities. It’s commercial players that are opening up the potential business case for sustaining a more ambitious return to human space flight than was promoted at the end of the Apollo era in the 1970s.

Appropriately, the tenor of the document is very much about how to protect US and allied space interests across the broader astrostrategic region out to the moon. That’s a vast region and exploiting it militarily will require innovation in strategic thinking and policy on employing US military and commercial, civil and allied capabilities in a coordinated manner.

Australia as a new space entrant has a valuable opportunity to think boldly about how it can play a role across the cislunar region as well. Space competition on the high ground of cislunar space may in part depend on who establishes the rules and regulatory foundations for human space activity out to the 2060s first. It’s better for Australia if a coalition of Western liberal democratic states, led by the US, shapes this new domain. The alternative is that others will make key decisions to our disadvantage.

Space law and arms control clearly need to be strengthened, but we must remember that many of these vital documents were formulated [8] in the 1960s and 1970s, when global space competition was dramatically different and commercial space simply didn’t exist. Investing our entire diplomatic efforts on retrofitting the past, while China and Russia simply move ahead to shape a new order in space, would be a path to failure. A better approach would be to build close cooperation with the US on establishing new ground rules that prevent an adversary from simply establishing a fait accompli in space—much as China has done in the South China Sea.

In space, location is everything, and getting to the high ground of cislunar space and establishing a permanent presence there matters a great deal if we are to have a role in shaping the rules that will regulate human activity, including military activities, in that region. From a civil and commercial space perspective, it’s important for Australia to play a visible role [9] in US-led space activities in cislunar space and on the lunar surface.

Such an Australian ‘moonshot’ goal would be consistent with the Australian Space Agency’s civil space strategy [10], and would directly draw on Australia’s space industry sector, in areas such as robotics and automation, access to space, and other ‘leapfrog’ research and development efforts. It would also allow Australia to directly support the primary recommendations of the 2060 report, which includes shaping the cislunar region’s rules-based order from the outset.

We need to think strategically about space. The moon and cislunar space are high astrostrategic terrain [11] above earth’s deep gravity well useful for niche roles such as space-based space situational awareness with sensors gazing down into GEO and across cislunar space. An Australian contribution of sensors would support burden-sharing with the US and other partners by providing data on the activities of potential competitors. That situational awareness in turn would help policymakers in crafting new legal and regulatory mechanisms.

The overriding goal should be ensuring that Australia’s interests are protected as major powers establish a new rules-based order for a new era in human space activity. The US is clearly determined not to cede its interests in this new arena of competition to China. Australia should stand firmly alongside the US in shaping affairs on the high ground that extends out to the moon.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/space-2060-and-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] report: https://www.afspc.af.mil/Portals/3/documents/Future%20of%20Space%202060%20v2%20(5%20Sep).pdf?ver=2019-09-06-184933-230

[2] sophisticated: https://breakingdefense.com/2019/09/afspc-study-eye-on-china-urges-expansive-new-strategy/

[3] thinking: https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/a-historic-national-vision-for-spacepower/

[4] vis-viva equation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vis-viva_equation

[5] Launching rockets from the Moon is our ticket to a home on Mars: https://medium.com/teamindus/why-launching-rockets-from-the-moon-is-our-ticket-to-a-home-on-mars-30bba878e9d8

[6] attention: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-space-mission-part-2-aiming-to-control-the-high-ground/

[7] race: https://warontherocks.com/2019/08/the-real-stakes-in-the-new-space-race/

[8] formulated: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/avoiding-a-free-for-all-the-outer-space-treaty-revisited/

[9] important for Australia to play a visible role: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/mr-morrison-goes-to-washington/

[10] civil space strategy: https://publications.industry.gov.au/publications/advancing-space-australian-civil-space-strategy-2019-2028.pdf

[11] terrain: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/china-the-us-and-the-race-for-space/

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