Concerns have been raised over the possibility of a Space Race 2, with the US and China outlining almost identical plans to put humans on the Moon and Mars over the next decade. But the University of Leicester’s Dr Bleddyn Bowen says the real threats are much closer to home. The expert in space warfare, space policy, and international relations in the cosmos revealed to Express.co.uk the vulnerability of key satellites in Low-Earth orbit, and the implications of them being tampered with.
He said: “I separate crewed spaceflight programmes from the more military and economic threats that are happening in Earth’s orbit now.
“Crewed spaceflight doesn’t really have any compelling military rationale, it’s not strategically relevant.
“It’s good for showing off that you can do things and for stimulating high-tech industry and driving forward space science.
“In terms of actual geopolitical competition that happens in Low-Earth orbit now, it will be another 100 years before it happens past there.
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“Earth orbit is where you will see the geopolitics happen – it’s a very crowded environment and a lot of different states are having to learn to work together and not get in each other’s way – unless they want to.”
Dr Bowen says there is the opportunity for situations to arise at any given moment in the day, with more than 2,500 satellites scattered across space.
He added: “Space traffic management is going to be a big issue in orbit, who has right of way if two satellites are getting close to each other?
“Radiofrequency spectrums are another area where there is a finite spectrum and the International Telecommunications have to pass that out for those that apply for it – that has become a geopolitical trading show.
“This is where the geopolitics of space is taking place, the Moon and Mars are for future generations to worry about.
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“Any conflict in space is going to be part of a conflict on Earth – space warfare is the continuation of terrestrial politics.
“There are so many different ways that could happen, but GPS is a key example and that is a military system for the US and NATO partners.”
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based radio-navigation system owned by the US government and operated by the Space Force.
It is one of four Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) that provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on Earth.
Originally limited to use by the US military, civilian use was allowed from the Eighties following an executive order from President Ronald Reagan, and now its NATO partners, including the UK, rely on GPS.
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GPS is a vulnerable system in Low-Earth orbit
China could wipe out the system in a conflict
The three other systems are run by the EU under Galileo, the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) and China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System.
Dr Bowen added: “If there is a war between China and the US we could expect GPS to be harassed or disrupted through electronic jamming or cyber hacking, or they could just wipe it out with missiles.
“There are options for China, but we would feel the dire consequences because we rely on it for civilian infrastructure as well.
“GPS could be taken down if China and America were fighting over Taiwan for example, you can’t disentangle a conflict in orbit from on Earth, it would be a very serious thing.
“If a war is likely, then a space war is likely, and the big question is if Mutually Assured Destruction still prevents that from happening.”
With Joe Biden winning the US election, Dr Bowen warned he could be facing such a threat as soon as he gets the keys to the White House next year.
GPS is a vital system used by NATO partners
He added: “The prospect of thermonuclear war is still there, but Biden has many reasons to argue with Xi Jinping, you never know how a new President will deal with the larger states on the international stage.
“They might develop a better relationship with some leaders and their officials, but with Biden, he has campaigned to not be [Donald] Trump.
“The agenda isn’t always for the US to set, he will be reaching to the situation presented – relationships between the US and China are at a low.
“Things have taken a downward spiral and other countries have the will of their own, including Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese elite.
“Taiwan can also do things that could trigger a crisis, to which Biden will have to respond, we just don’t know until it happens, Biden will be reacting as much as setting the agenda.”