Tensions on Earth reflected in orbit

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Data: United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Space is set to become more congested over the next decades as more countries and companies are able to access it and economies become more reliant on space-based technologies.

Why it matters: Though space is seemingly infinite, Earth’s orbital capacity is not, and this surge in traffic around the planet may catalyze new competitions — and collaborations — between nations.

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What’s happening: Yearly satellite launches have roughly doubled since 2019, according to data from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

  • It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing, as analysts project up to 50,000 satellites could be orbiting the planet in the next decade, according to the U.S. Space Development Agency.

The big picture: “The more actors you have in space, the more people who have something at stake in this shared environment,” says Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

  • “That could actually bring countries together to establish better norms, policies, regulations for how we all use space,” Harrison says.

  • On the other hand, “it becomes more likely that there may be conflicting interests. And when you have conflicting interests, that could lead to conflict,” he adds.

Details: Increased competition and the specter of a conflict in space will likely push more countries to develop and deploy anti-satellite weapons.

  • Countries may choose to retain those weapons to deter attacks on their satellites, even if they never use them, Harrison says. Attacks that break apart satellites are dangerous not just for those targeted but for any nation or company with a satellite in the way of debris.

  • Weapons that use electromagnetic pulses, lasers and microwaves to temporarily disable or blind targets may be attractive alternatives because they don’t create debris, and those types of attacks can be difficult to attribute to a particular actor.

Yes, but: It’s unclear if this strategy of building up weapons but not using them — which has worked so far for nuclear weapons — could prevent a space skirmish because the consequences of satellite warfare would be less severe than nuclear warfare, Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden says.

What to watch: Behavioral norms and regulations in space — such as defining how close satellites should approach each other and how to conduct responsible weapon tests in space — could help to maintain a relatively safe space environment.

  • Enforcing those norms and regulations and averting collisions, however, would require a better way to track and manage objects in orbit, says Victoria Samson, an analyst with Secure World Foundation.

  • Establishing international agreements for best practices in space would be difficult, Weeden says, but they wouldn’t need to be unanimously adopted to function. If multiple countries adhere to them, that could be enough to recognize, condemn and curb irresponsible behavior.

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