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Space cooperation in the balance

By Ann Buel | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-11-29 15:49

The Tianzhou 4 cargo spacecraft delivers supplies to the space station under construction in this artist's rendering. [Photo by Guo Zhongzheng/Xinhua]

Even before the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik, space was an area of cooperation, as well as competition or conflict. This was so during the Cold War, and is also the case today.

Space has become a central issue of war and peace, international law, justice and international development, and cooperation between the world’s leading states. It is home for hundreds of satellites, which ensure the functioning of critical Earth systems – such as telecommunications, television and the internet, GPS navigation and weather forecasts, climate change observation, military applications, and many more.

However, the conflict in Ukraine has shifted a number of trends, suggesting that the nature of cooperation in space is moving toward a direction that could pose serious international security threats.

The future of space exploration, which is being determined by the dynamics among the space blocs, has turned toward increased cooperation, but also toward competition.

In 1975, 10 European nations founded the European Space Agency, which now includes 22 nations, and this could be considered among the first space blocs. The recent ones established in the last decade include the African Space Agency; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency; and the Arab Space Coordination Group. The most current establishments are the United States-led Artemis Accords, and the Sino-Russian lunar agreement.

According to Svetla Ben-Itzhak, an assistant professor of space and international relations at Air University, these blocs allow for nations to collaborate closely with others in their blocs, but the blocs are competing with one another. For example, the Artemis Accords aim to return people to the Moon by 2025 and establish a governing framework for exploring and mining on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The mission aims to build a research station on the south pole of the Moon with a supporting lunar space station. Similarly, Russia and China are collaborating on a mission to send people to the south pole of the Moon by 2026. This joint Sino-Russian mission also aims to eventually build a Moon base and place a space station in lunar orbit.

Although being open, these blocs do not collaborate to accomplish similar missions on the Moon, which indicates that strategic interests and rivalries on the ground have been transposed to space. The European Space Agency, for instance, has discontinued several joint projects it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the US and Japan. Although, according to European Commission sources, the recent energy crisis in Europe and the desire to allocate budgetary resources to Ukraine have led to a number of planned space exploration-related projects being postponed.

Space is also the home of the International Space Station, launched in 1998 by the US and Russia, which is now supported by 15 countries, working together to advance space exploration, elaborate and test the new technologies. However, following the sanctions, related to the conflict in Ukraine, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, reportedly announced that it will exit the International Space Station program after 2024 to focus on developing its own national space station called the Russian Orbital Service Station. The US is scrambling to find a replacement for Russia which controls essential functions on the station that keep it in an upright orbit around the Earth. But with Roscosmos’ withdrawal, the operations of the International Space Station are coming to a halt, after which this masterpiece of space cooperation is expected to be de-orbited by 2030.

China has already assembled the three modules of its Tiangong space station in orbit and astronauts live aboard the spacecraft, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year. This will affect the space programs of the European Union in particular, which does not aim to build its own space station, sidelining it from the defining of the development of space policy in the coming years. The space policy of the European Union recently focuses on expanding its satellite system with communication satellites to become operation al by 2027, as confirmed by Rodrigo de Costa, the Executive Director of the European space agency. The objective is to offer governmental services secure access to the internet in crisis situations — like cyberattacks and natural disasters, as well as also offer broadband connection in places where internet access currently isn't available in Europe, the Arctic region and Africa.

The path toward cooperation versus conflict in space in not closed, as has been confirmed recently by NASA, whose administrator Bill Nelson said at the international space conference in Paris in September that China and NASA have recently coordinated over issues such as the orbits of Mars spacecraft. Although he noted that there is a lack of deeper understanding. NASA and CNSA (the China National Space Administration) have notably identified some of the same potential landing areas around the lunar south pole for their planned missions.

According as a NASA spokesperson said, just as the lunar south pole is of scientific interest to NASA, it is also of scientific interest to other nations, so some overlap in regions is to be expected and is not a concern.

According to Svetla Ben-Itzhak, if the existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish, and the world may yet avoid an open conflict in space. Maintaining the focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs – while keeping political rivalries at bay – will help to ensure the future of international cooperation in space. "Space is hard, so pooling resources, manpower and know-how makes sense."

The author is a former officer of the European Commission.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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