There’s been a lot of talk lately about the likelihood of countries taking to space to wage war.
When someone as powerful as US President Donald Trump announces the formation of an American space force, it’s not hard to see why the military-minded have described war in space as an inevitability.
But is a real-life Star Wars really something we can expect soon?
Steven Freeland, who specialises in space law at Western Sydney University, doesn’t think so.
“We’ve had humans utilising space for military purposes and for a whole range of other amazing things for 60 years — and we haven’t had warfare in space,” Mr Freeland said.
“We’ve got treaty law that makes it clear space is to be utilised for peaceful purposes.”
According to Professor Freeland, the consequences of space warfare for countries that are reliant on satellite technology would be significant.
Even one day without access to space would be a disaster for the United States, Australia, Russia or China, he said, because they’re so dependent on it.
“The more that you are dependent on something, the more vulnerable you are if that thing were to be compromised,” Mr Freeland said.
Is a ‘space force’ really necessary?
GPS satellites (which are owned by the US) control many things we take for granted; sewerage, traffic and aircraft navigations would collapse if these were compromised in space battle.
So is Mr Trump onto something when he says the US needs a space force?
Some in the US believe if the country’s space assets are vulnerable, then it must have mechanisms in place to protect them.
“All of that sort of talk has an effect, because other countries will look at that and react to that,” Mr Freeland said.
“If you have talk about domination and making sure your assets are protected against anyone else, that has dangers of ratcheting up the possibility that others will react in a similar way.”
It can be likened to the Cold War concept of mutual assured destruction, where neither the US or USSR would launch a nuclear attack since doing so would all but guarantee retaliation on the same scale.
Mr Freeland, however, is optimistic. He hopes for a realisation that when it comes to space, we are all in this together.
In the end, there are lines that can’t be crossed — and if one country does cross the line, then everybody loses out in some way, Mr Freeland said.
What does the law say about space?
International law regarding conflict in space is murky.
Space analyst Roy Sach believes war in space can’t be prevented completely.
But he said it’s not too late to raise awareness about the potential negative impacts of space warfare.
“The main safeguard is publicising the adverse consequences that would result from warfare in space — and assuring that it’s well-known internationally that the nations most dependent on space would be the ones to suffer most,” Mr Sach said.
The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law.
Some people — like Professor Freeland — believe it needs updating, to prevent a space war from breaking out.
The fundamental principles of the Outer Space Treaty are about peaceful uses for space, however these are decades old and don’t go into specifics.
The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS), which Mr Freeland contributes to, is a guide to what space experts around the world think the law is.
“We need to get binding international law treaties on some of these issues complementing the existing fundamental principles. That’s the ideal,” he said.
The problem of space debris
War in space would look pretty different to the dogfights we see in space blockbuster films.
Countries would focus on destroying each other’s assets, rather than all-out battles with lasers and explosions.
Another aspect the movies often ignore is the problem of space debris.
The only demonstrated fully effective weapons in space are nuclear weapons and kinetic weapons, both of which scatter debris on impact.
“The problem with nuclear weapons is not simply the fragmentation they can cause, but they also leave behind an electromagnetic pulse that can last weeks,” Mr Sach said.
These fragments and pulses could damage orbiting satellites. Kinetic weapons are more accurate and will only target a specific satellite, however they still leave behind dangerous debris.
“The problem is that debris will reach a critical point where it becomes self-sustaining … eventually areas of space become unusable for humanity for a very long time, depending on the altitude this sort of conflict takes place,” Mr Sach said.
A large amount of space debris already orbits the Earth, and there are extensive tracking projects in place to monitor it.
But there’s as much propaganda regarding space debris as there is debris, according to Mr Sach.
“A lot of those tracking capabilities could also be used to track other people’s satellites — it’s a wonderful cover for all those sorts of activities,” he said.
We can be friends in space
Setting up international treaties to protect peace in space is a challenge, but Professor Freeland is optimistic it can be done.
To explain, he recounts a recent trip to a United Nations conference in Moscow.
“Russia and America are not the best of friends at the moment, however there was a US astronaut training at the cosmonaut centre outside Moscow, who is about to go to the International Space Station,” he said.
“In space, the US and Russia and others are cooperating. It’s a different context.”