A white mammoth in the room? Marcal Sanimarti argues that the emergence of a space economy has the potential to cause geopolitical disruption.

AuthorSanimarti, Marcal

Before the sudden arrival of the pandemic, there was a white elephant in the room: climate change. News of extraordinary changes in our environment were everywhere, from melting ice caps at the North Pole to floods in the Arabian peninsula. (1) But the truth is that beyond the dramatic climate change that we are suffering (and provoking), there is an even bigger reality emerging. A change that might disrupt geopolitics more than climate change and Covid-19 in the long term. Because this new reality is bigger than our own geography on planet Earth. Outer space is the next higher ground to be held.

The emergence of a space economy is not science fiction. It is not even a futuristic event. It is a reality as common as the use of the internet and the GPS geo-location system. When we think of huge businesses like dating apps such as Tinder in the West or Tan Tan in China, transportation apps such as Uber or its Russian equivalent Taxi, they all use satellites. That means that this constellation of satellites providing us services are economic assets. And very important ones. According to Bloomberg's 2019 report the satellite data service market will be worth more than US$23 billion by 2025. (2) According to Morgan Stanley, the revenue generated by the global space industry may increase from US$350 billion in 2019 to more than $L trillion by 2040. (3) Of course, the current pandemic puts these numbers in question. In fact, several space activities have been put on hold. But others have rigorously followed schedule. China resumed satellite launches as soon as this past February 2020. The first national security satellite was launched by the American Space Force in March 2020. Even the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Space X launched astronauts to the International Space Station in May, despite the current pandemic. (4)

Seeing the potential size of the space economy pie, it is not strange at all to see space agencies from the United States, Russia, India, China and the European Union flexing their engineering muscles. But they are not alone. In fact, nowadays there are more than 80 space agencies, including in developing countries like Ghana. Even an autonomous territory such as Catalonia has its own space research institute. Furthermore, a series of private corporations joined the competition, and they mean business. Jeff Bezos, the man behind Amazon, the most valuable public company in the world (market value of US$800 billion), is one of the most active entrepreneurs in the business. And he is not the only one. Elon Musk from Tesla and Richard Branson, chief executive of Virgin, are also members of the exclusive club of 'Rocket Billionaires'. The public and the private sector are competing and collaborating in the search for new frontiers, markets and resources. It is like going back to the 1700s--the time of the rise of the East India Company and the age of exploration.

The president of the United States announced the creation of a US Space Force on February 2019 as an independent service. Some people were shocked and in disbelief. Why waste time and money on such a thing? The Space Force has been a reliable applause line at Trump's political rallies, but for the military it is seen more soberly as an affirmation of the need to more effectively organise for the defence of US interests in space. We are talking more specifically about the protection of satellites used for navigation and communication. The force is not designed or intended to put combat troops in space. A lesser known fact is that France followed the same path some months after, (5) and other countries like Japan are taking similar steps. Satellites are very valuable not just for the military but for national economies too.

Even though we are seeing a proliferation of anti-satellite weapons (specially in China), (6) it is unlikely that we are at present witnessing a space arms race. The international Outer Space Treaty prohibits the testing of weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons in orbit, and another United Nations treaty prohibits the weaponisation of outer space. A different question is: when is that going to change, since NATO has already declared space as an operational domain? (7) But that is not the focus of this article.

New economy

The Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, was initially signed by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union back in 1967. As of June 201 9, 109 countries are parties to the treaty, while another 23...

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