The writer is a former Nato secretary-general and a member of the European Space Agency’s advisory group on human and robotic space exploration
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has made clear how vital space is to our security. In January, GPS images of Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders signalled an imminent invasion. Throughout the war, satellite links have kept frontline troops connected with their commanders. Meanwhile, GPS-guided Himar rocket launchers have helped shift the balance of the war in Ukraine’s favour, allowing them to pinpoint and destroy Russian ammunition dumps and artillery well behind enemy lines. This is the first major conflict where both sides have been heavily reliant on space-based capabilities. It will not be the last.
The importance of space during the war in Ukraine reflects how central activity in Earth’s orbits has become to all our lives. In recent years, the US, Russia, China, and India, have significantly strengthened their space capabilities. In a time of heightened geopolitical tension, Europe must not be left behind.
This week European ministers meet in Paris to discuss the future of Europe’s space programme. One conclusion is already clear — our continent’s security and prosperity will increasingly rely on our ability to act in space. For this we need secure infrastructure, open and safe access, and sustainable human activity.
In Ukraine, Russia is increasingly targeting critical civilian infrastructure. Moscow has launched repeated missile attacks against the country’s power plants and electricity grid. The aim is clear: to make life as hard as possible for civilians this winter. Russia has even targeted infrastructure outside Ukraine, allegedly sabotaging underwater pipelines carrying gas to Europe.
Moscow is making clear that it perceives critical infrastructure as a legitimate target in any future conflict. This includes assets in space. In the early days of the war, Russia launched cyber attacks on Ukraine’s satellite communication systems. Last year it carried out anti-satellite tests in low-earth orbit, proving it has the capacity to conduct physical strikes in space if it chooses to do so. This threat was made explicit last month, when a senior Russian official told the UN that commercial satellites from the US and its allies could be “legitimate targets for retaliatory strikes”.
Europe must be able to act autonomously in space. Last month, SpaceX owner Elon Musk tweeted a “peace plan” for Ukraine, and has also threatened to cut access to the company’s Starlink satellites. This plan could have been taken straight from a Kremlin disinformation unit. It called for Kyiv to cede swaths of territory to Russia and commit to military neutrality. Musk’s foray into geopolitics highlighted the dangers of space monopolies. Europe cannot allow its critical infrastructure to be subject to the whims or tweets of billionaires.
The best way to avoid this is for European leaders to push for a more open and competitive market in space. Our companies must be able to compete on a level playing field, while ensuring we maintain essential capabilities within the continent. This is important because space exploration drives innovation. It expands our technological horizons, creates new industries and drives understanding about our place in the universe. However, it can only bring these benefits if our activity there is safe and sustainable. Right now, it is not clear that is the case.
In particular, low-Earth orbit risks becoming dangerously congested with larger and larger objects. This is due to the launch of mega-constellations of satellites by companies such as SpaceX and Amazon. In 2018, there were just 2,000 satellites in orbit. By the end of this decade this could be 100,000: a 50-fold increase. Both the European Space Agency and Nasa have raised the alarm on the growing threat of overcrowding, collisions and the generation of debris.
Just like air, land and water resources, near-Earth space is fragile. New rules are badly needed to govern human activity there. Unfortunately, global consensus is impossible in the current climate. It is time for Europe to step up. We have been at the forefront of addressing environmental concerns on Earth, we must do the same in space.
We must understand and address the risks before it is too late. Our academics and companies must work with allies to understand what activity Earth’s orbits can sustain, as we did for sea lanes and civilian airspace. Regulators should then set clear conditions when granting market access to satellite companies, which lower the risk of collisions.
Europe must be bold. If we fail to address security concerns, we will be weaker. If we fail to deliver a level playing field, we will be poorer. And if we fail to make our space activity safe and sustainable, then future generations will pay the price.