Artemis programme by NASA envisages the return of the first man and woman to the Moon by 2026

Artemis programme by NASA envisages the return of the first man and woman to the Moon by 2026

Infrastructure  |  Business  |  Space

The Risk of world powers in space: the moves on the geopolitical map

The global scenario sees more and more like-minded countries also aligning with each other in the new space race, as a new, increasingly decisive, space economy emerges for industrial competition. However, more international cooperation is needed to protect space as a common good and to achieve the great shared goals of humanity

The great acceleration. This may be the most appropriate definition to describe the events that, since the end of the last decade, have given rise to a new space race. Unlike in the late 1950s and mid-1970s, when it was essentially a two-man race (US and Soviet Union), today there are many more committed players. More countries, such as the Gulf States, but also India, Japan and Brazil. On the other hand, the large-scale entry of private players has begun. They are re-defining the rules of the game and rendering space law regulations drawn up in the late 1970s largely obsolete today.

The alignments

Moreover, the international scenario of the new space race seems to replicate the alignments that are currently taking place in wider international relations, with like-minded countries also aligned in the space race. The Moon seems to be the next step in the geopolitical confrontation in space. On the one hand, the United States, along with many other Western, Gulf and Latin American countries that are engaged in the Artemis programme by NASA, which envisages the return of the first man and woman to the Moon by 2026, followed by the construction of a cislunar base and a permanent presence on the Moon, with the prospect of going to Mars. 

On the other hand, China and Russia are committed to the construction of a permanent research station on the Moon (ILRS) by 2036, a commitment that is attracting the interest of an increasing number of countries in the Global South. This is the context of the recent statement by Yuri Borisov, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in which he said on 5 March that Russia and China are considering installing a nuclear power plant on the Moon by 2035. Reiterating Russia's absolute will to not install nuclear weapons in space, he pointed out that a nuclear power plant on the Moon could provide enough electricity to power future lunar settlements. While not explicitly referring to ILRS, a nuclear power plant could evidently also supply energy to the already announced Sino-Russian lunar station.

In these joint initiatives, China is becoming increasingly important, with Moscow now assigned the role of junior partner, particularly after the failure of Moscow's recent mission to the Moon. Beijing's idea of building alliances in the space field is also central in the framework of China's newly operational Tiangong Space Station, which will become a crucial geopolitical tool, especially after the dismantling of the International Space Station (ISS) early in the beginning of the next decade. 

However, as anticipated, other players are effectively entering the scenario of the new space race. India, for example, launched a new space strategy last year, opening up to the private sector. In August 2023, it became the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon. In the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are at the forefront of autonomous access to space, often playing on cooperation with both 'blocs'. In the great game of space, Africa also intends to play its own part. As yet, no country has autonomous access to space, but collaborations are multiplying between major African states and major space powers, China in particular, to create national networks of satellites for dual civil and military use. 

The issues for the European Union

The European Union, on the other hand, is trying to regain autonomous access to space, through the new Ariane 6 and VEGA C launchers, which should be ready by 2024. It is a fundamental pillar of the broadest European strategic autonomy, especially to remain competitive in the space race. However, it is necessary to look further: major American companies, including Space X, are already able to use reusable launchers, significantly lowering launch costs. Europe, from this point of view, must accelerate and foster (including through venture capital) the development of new technologies and a space economic and industrial sector that can keep pace with its major international competitors, especially by supporting partnerships between public and private players. Central in this respect is the European Space Launchers Alliance, created as part of the European Industrial Strategy. 

The role of the private businesses

Indeed, the new space race cannot disregard the role of the private sector, which is increasingly central in offering services to other private players but also to the space agencies themselves such as NASA, e.g. by providing transport systems to and from the International Space Station. It can be said, in fact, that Space X (even more so in the near future through the Starship launch vehicle) has become the central pivot for ensuring autonomous access to US space and for enabling the advancement of the US space programme. Thanks to lower launch costsfrom USD 65,000 per kilogram to the current USD 1,500 per kg (with further downward prospects), new space activities are becoming increasingly affordable, in particular the launch of satellites even by small and medium-sized companies, or by large companies in the form of constellations. Elon Musk's Starlink programme is a clear example of this, with the creation of a mega constellation of satellites to offer a high-speed Internet connectivity service globally. Due to this sudden development, currently more than 8,300 satellites are active in orbit, which may become more than 40,000 within a few years

New synergies

The new space race is proving capable of fostering stable and sustainable growth in the space industry, dubbed the new space economy’ to differentiate it from the space economy that developed during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The most significant difference between the old and the new space race is the increasing synergy that is developing between the traditional players in the space scenario, mainly public, and the private sector. This radical change in industry has led to significant cost reductions in those sectors where private players have started to act according to market rules, giving a considerable boost to innovation. According to the most recent Space Foundation estimates the value of the new space economy has increased for seven consecutive years from 2015 to 2022, almost doubling its value in less than a decade. If in 2015 it was just over USD 300 billion worldwide, in 2022 it peaked at USD 546 billion

Traditionally, the estimated value of the space economy is based on upstream activities (space infrastructures, satellites, launchers, space stations) and downstream activities (services that are developed on the ground based on the data collected by devices in orbit). Upstream, enabling downstream, represents a $280 billion market, led by investors such as Paul Allen, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Currently, the satellite segment is the most popular with entrepreneurs and investors, attracting 88% of total investments (approximately USD 246 billion for the period 2014-22), followed by companies engaged in launch services, with approximately USD 28.9 billion over the same period. 

Investments and developments

The new space economy includes development opportunities in various sectors. Space exploration offers prospects for widespread commercial applications, such as space tourism. An increasingly important role will also be played in the coming years by the construction and operation of new commercial space stations, which will be a key driver for the development of new sectors of the new space economy and innovative technologies. It is in this context that Axiom Space's recent Ax-3 mission returned to Earth aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 9 February, thus concluding the third private astronaut mission to the ISS.

Thanks to technological development and the substantial reduction in launch costs, a veritable ‘space gold rush’, i.e. all those critical minerals such as cobalt, nickel, iridium, platinum, selenium and gallium, is also opening up. These are key materials for industrial applications such as wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles, photovoltaic panels and semiconductors. Asteroids and other celestial bodies (such as the Moon and Mars) could therefore make an important contribution to the Earth’s energy transition.

The risks for sustainability

There is, however, the increasingly pressing issue of the sustainability of space activities. The exponential increase in launches, the growing number of satellites in orbit, as well as military experiments conducted by the major space powers (such as the anti-satellite weapons tests pursued by the United States, China, and most recently in 2021 by Russia), have resulted in a very large amount of space debris, which also represents a strong element of danger for space activities themselves. Therefore, the unilateral US decision in 2022 to a moratorium on anti-satellite testing, followed by similar measures by many western countries and a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution is significant. Further concerns on this front came recently from the announcement by the United States, which accused the Russian Federation of wanting to build an anti-satellite nuclear weapon in space. Although Russia has denied the allegations, the incident has caused much concern in Washington as the detonation of such a weapon could disrupt all kinds of communications, from military to telephone navigation services.

As can be seen from this overview, space is a global common good and cooperation is essential to achieve crucial shared objectives, such as climate change mitigation, as well as for research into new technologies to ensure progress in various fields, such as energy and medicine. Above all, space exploration is an expensive activity requiring the most advanced technologies: international cooperation would create economies of scale, thus avoiding overlaps and inefficiencies, and reducing the waste of financial resources.

What is still missing is a shared agreement on a new global framework of rules governing outer space. In particular, there is a lack of an appropriate regulatory regime for the activities of private companies. This is of crucial importance to ensure an orderly and sustainable development of space activities, to avoid conflicts and to promote international cooperation. Alternatively, the risk is to generate new chaos beyond the limits of our atmosphere.

ISPI - - Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale is the first Italian think tank focused on the study of international trends. Besides its research activity, ISPI supports a commitment in formation, conferences, analysis and counseling about the risks and the opportunities worldwide for companies and institutions. Its approach combines the geopolitical and geoeconomic analysis, and relies on partnerships with the most influential think tanks, from all over the world. ISPI is a non-for-profit private law association.

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