There are times when mankind’s ability to conquer the challenges presented by outer space can be truly inspirational, such as Nasa’s latest Dart mission to prevent the Earth being destroyed by an asteroid. In what Nasa scientists see as a test run for saving the planet from extinction, they have launched their first spacecraft designed to stop a huge space rock from colliding with Earth.
The aim of the Dart spacecraft that blasted off yesterday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California is to target a small asteroid called Dimorphos, which takes just over two years to orbit the sun. Although this space rock poses no direct threat to Earth, Nasa is keen to test its ability to prevent our planet from being hit by a far larger comet.
A comet strike sixty-six million years ago is credited with bringing the reign of the dinosaurs to an end, as well as eradicating most plant and animal species. But while asteroids arguably pose a far greater threat to mankind than climate change, our ability to protect ourselves from such an eventuality has largely been consigned to the realms of science fiction, as depicted in the 1998 movie Armageddon, where the comet is destroyed by flying nuclear bombs into its core.
This week’s Nasa mission has more modest ambitions, merely seeking to deflect an asteroid from hitting Earth rather than destroying it completely. But the project, which should result in Dart smashing into its target at 15,000mph in September 2022, just goes to show the rapid advances being made in man’s ability to conquer the challenges of space, for both good and bad.
For, while it is hard to question the merits of a programme that aims to save mankind from oblivion, other developments in the realms of space are far more problematic – Russia’s successful test-firing earlier this month of an anti-satellite missile among them.
The estimated 3,000 satellites currently circling the globe play a vital role in our everyday lives, such as facilitating communications and travel. They also make a crucial contribution to the modern battlefield, which might explain why the Kremlin is investing so much effort in acquiring the means to destroy them.
The destruction of a defunct Soviet-era intelligence satellite by Russia’s new Nudol anti-satellite weapons system, which provoked widespread criticism from the West and caused the seven-man crew of the International Space Station to take shelter, was a dramatic demonstration of Moscow’s ability to destroy key elements of our national infrastructure.
China, too, has recently demonstrated alarming new developments in its space-oriented missile capabilities, such as its recent test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, a manoeuvrable spacecraft that can carry a nuclear warhead, which has the ability to fire a separate missile in mid-flight.
Rivalry in space between the world’s major powers is nothing new. One of the defining contests of the Cold War era was the desperate race between Washington and Moscow to put a man on the Moon.
What is different about the modern-day struggle between the world’s major powers for mastery of space is the potentially devastating impact it could have on our well-being. While the Cold War rivalry was essentially a race to the Moon, today’s contest is all about which power can inflict the maximum amount of damage against an adversary through the application of space technology.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, moreover, has a long history of employing new war-fighting techniques to achieve his goals. The current migrant crisis in Eastern Europe, which Moscow has been accused of encouraging, is a classic exercise in hybrid warfare, where Russia and its Belarusian ally are callously exploiting the plight of hapless migrants to cause divisions among EU leaders.
And if, as many Eastern Europeans fear, the Russian leader were to cause further unrest by launching another military offensive against Ukraine in the coming months, he would almost certainly exploit Russia’s mastery of space technology to his advantage.
Russia already has the ability to disrupt navigation systems used by the West that rely on satellites, as RAF Typhoon pilots involved in operations against Islamic State discovered when their systems were subjected to Russian jamming. Moscow would certainly employ these and other space-linked tactics against Ukraine in the event of renewed hostilities.
With adversaries like Russia and China seeking to become the dominant powers in space, the priority for the Western powers now is to ensure they are equal to the challenge. There is certainly a widespread recognition that space must be taken seriously as a new frontier in modern warfare, with the US, France and Britain all establishing their own military space command structures during the past decade.
The concern, though, with Russia and China demonstrating their technical mastery of this new technology, is that there is no guarantee the West can win the latest space race.