Rocket may spearhead weaponisation of space

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

I: North Korea’s satellite launch highlights risk of using space for warfare

The launch of a satellite by North Korea on Wednesday prompted a louder than usual international outcry over the isolated communist state’s provocative behaviour, with condemnation at the UN security council and calls by the US for more sanctions.

The reasons cited for putting a 200lb Earth surveillance satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-3, into orbit – for peaceful research according to North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un – are being seen as somewhat specious.

Initially, US officials reported the satellite was tumbling out of control, but South Korean officials soon reported it was orbiting normally.

The prospect of an out-of-control satellite is a troubling one. A 2011 US national security space strategy document outlined the problem – there are approximately 22,000 man-made objects in orbit, of which 1,100 are active satellites, and the number is rising rapidly. That is leading to increasing congestion, and the resultant competition for supremacy in space is a cause of concern.

North Korea’s spy satellite, and suspicion around it, highlights some of the problems with the legal framework governing human activity in space, and particularly its use for military purposes.

The area beyond our atmosphere is largely regulated by the Outer Space Treaty. It was signed by the US, the USSR and the UK in 1967; a rather far-sighted piece of co-operation at the height of the cold war. The treaty has more than 100 signatories, and guarantees that space will remain free for access, exploration and use by all states.

It prohibits the building of military bases in space or on the moon, and bans the placing of weapons of mass destruction in orbit.

Space is already militarised to a great degree, what with all those spy satellites whizzing around, but the Outer Space Treaty is the only agreement preventing weaponisation of space – attempts to pass a UN resolution titled “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” have been repeatedly defeated. Despite support from Russia and China, which is rapidly increasing its military space presence, the US has refused to support such efforts. A recent US department of defence document reinforced fears that weaponisation of space is inevitable, with the department vowing to “proactively seek opportunities to co-operate with allies . . . in designing, acquiring, and operating military space systems”.