USA Space Policy

New Cold War, New Space Race

If you have been half following the news the last few years, you may have noticed the US’s growing attrition with China. What used to be a very profitable outsourcing partnership quickly developed into one of the US’s greatest fears, and Trump’s America First policy set out to try to stop it in its tracks, unsuccessfully.

What we didn’t really expect, however, was that this economic war would also develop into a space race, much like the Cold War’s. It is logical, though: China is growing into a technological power, as Huawei’s ever expanding 5G technology clearly shows, and the country is also aiming for the stars.

Paradigm shift

Of course, although this space race is similar to the last one, in that it is a technological race, it also has many very prominent differences.

The main one is that the government agencies aren’t the main players here. NASA is not at the forefront of technological development anymore but has been delegated to mostly astronomical research. That is, developing and launching probes and satellites and sending manned research missions into the ISS.

The main players in the US are now private companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which receive a lot of private and public investment and have been very successful.

In China, however, the government is still on the forefront, mainly with the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), in partnership with many universities.

Although compared to the US, the Chinese space program is still in its infancy, the US has greater ambitions.

Command and conquer

During his term, Trump slowly increased his focus on space. While he initially just followed Obama’s last policies, at the end of his term he had created the United States Space Force increased focus on space research, and set the goals of creating a base of operations on the Moon, with a “permanent human presence”, and doing a manned mission to Mars.

While current international laws prohibit nations from considering celestial bodies or parts of them as their territory, this is something that may change by force, should the US actually develop a military presence in space. At least for now, it aims to do missions with commercial ends, such as extraction of raw materials, especially on the moon. But, of course, as the technology develops and the attrition goes on, priorities may change.

Cooperation

Another interesting aspect of the current space policy, and which gives even more “cold war” vibes, is that the US is aiming to create partnerships with similar-minded nations in order to strengthen their space program. The National Space Policy document explicitly states that such partnerships will be done with “like-minded international and private partners”. The world is slowly dividing into a “US-bloc” and a “China-bloc”, and space is the most likely battlefield for now.

This seems to be one of the ways the US has found to try to curb a bit China’s economic expansion, such as the partnerships with African countries, the Belt and Road Initiative (which has partners in all continents other than North America) and Huawei’s 5G expansion. These partnerships can be a way into getting access to advanced aerospace technology, and many nations may be interested in it, especially developed nations.

A new era for the US and the world

More than a new space race, for the US this new space policy is basically a reinterpretation of the old Manifest Destiny: America is putting its own territorial and economic interests ahead of everything else, and that means being the first to go into the final frontier and reap all of the benefits which that brings.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, we will be reaping all the benefits of that technological leap in the next few decades, just like before. The first space race gave us the internet, the GPS, and many other technological marvels that we use every day. Now, in the era of Industry 4.0, who knows what will happen.

Militarization of Space

US Space Force: what is the point?

It is no secret to anyone that our space exploration technology isn’t anywhere near “Star Trek” level. It is not even near “The Expanse” level. We still have a lot of trouble getting out of our atmosphere, it takes months or years to go from a planet to the other, and we don’t even have a  space station with ship-building capabilities.

But just the same, in 2019 Trump turned the Air Force’s Space Command into its own branch of the military, the United States Space Force. We humans certainly don’t have the technology to go around shooting lasers at space pirates, so what does it do? Do its officers just sit and wait for the technology to come? Is it even more “chair force” than the Air Force?

Well, let’s take a look.

Military intelligence and Counter-Intelligence

Do they sit around waiting for aliens to come by? No. At least not only that. While military spacecraft aren’t a reality yet, satellites are very real and can brings many problems.

Namely, it is important to keep track of satellites that are nearing their end of life or have stopped working, to find out if they may fall into American territory. Also, using satellites for espionage is also very possible, and considering the US’s recent conflicts with China, this is something to keep an eye on.

The Space Force also has to be ready in case someone launches an ICBM (that is, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, notably the nuclear variety). These kinds of missiles are sent beyond the atmosphere, where they travel until they get near the desired target and then fall straight down. Monitoring its path may aid in evacuating locations and maybe even destroying it mid-flight. Of course, in this case they are keeping an eye on North Korea.

Research partnerships

Even though there are no military space crafts yet, that doesn’t mean they won’t exist. For 2021, two thirds of the Space Force budget (10 billion dollars) will be directed to research. Current research policy consists mostly of partnerships with private companies which invest in the aerospace and military fields, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and of course Lockheed Martin. NASA is also part of it, but they have more of a symbiotic relationship, similar to NASA’s relationship with those same companies, especially by providing space training, as NASA is mainly a scientific agency.

These partnerships with private companies seem to be mostly based on prospecting and buying suitable crafts and equipment from those companies which could further the Force’s objectives, in a similar way to the branches’ practice of having private contractors to supply them with equipment, vehicles and aircraft. It may seem weird for those of us which grew up hearing so much about NASA and its pioneering technologies to hear about private space exploration, but that seems to be the trend for the near future and the Military is going to take advantage of it if they can.

The future

We’re probably not going to hear very much from them in the near future. How the Space Force is going to shape itself will depend heavily on the advances from both NASA and private companies, and until then, their work will be mostly intelligence- and defense-based. Not really exciting stuff.

However, the results from such partnerships seem to be already taking shape in some way. Not long ago there were news that SpaceX had teamed with the US Military to develop a rocket capable of delivering weapons in less than an hour to any place in the world. Seems very sci-fi-esque, but considering SpaceX’s advances in the field, that is not unlikely.

For the short term, US Space Force’s action will mostly focus on our own planet, but there will come a time when they will be able to aim for the stars.

Space Exploration – Enter the Interplanetary Superhighway

I’m on a Highway to Rigel

The hardest part of going out into space to discover and explore other planets are the very planets themselves. You may have read about how fuel is always a problem for those kinds of missions: you need a lot of it just to get out of the atmosphere, and the some more to steer around in space and reach your destination. Which means a lot of weight, which means you need more fuel, and so on.

The careful reader may notice a problem: in space there is no gravity, and other non-gaseous planets barely have an atmosphere. Why would fuel be a problem? The thing is: space actually has lots of gravity. Because the sun, nearby planets and asteroids, and big planets like Jupiter have a pretty wide and strong gravity well. So you have to use fuel to counteract that.

But what if we could use regions of space where those forces cancel each other out?

Enter the Interplanetary Superhighway

These “space highways” are some things we know for some decades now. They are regions of space where gravitational forces cancel each other, so any object in them won’t need fuel to maintain their velocity.

Many asteroids and bits of space dust are found in some such regions, especially the ones called “Lagrange points”, special points created by the interaction of a star and a planet. Four each pair, there are five Lagrange points. When you mix in lots of other planets and celestial bodies, things get more complex, but also more useful, as that’s how the highway came to be.

Didn’t the Voyagers use something like that?

Unfortunately, no they didn’t. The Voyagers took advantage of the alignment of the planets beyond the asteroid belt in order to get “slingshotted” from our system. Whenever they passed near the orbit of one of those planets, they got a speed boost, but as soon as they left them they got slowed down by the gravitational effects, as you can see in the picture below. If they had entered the highway, they wouldn’t be slowed down at all.


Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_program

The first time one of our spacecrafts took advantage of the highway was in 1978, one year after the launch of the Voyagers, and mostly just to test the Lagrange points. By then we already had a rough way to figure out those highways, but they still aren’t being used a lot.

So what’s new?

The news is: we discovered an even better highway. The other one was pretty complicated and involved many twists and turns. This new one used the latest advances in this field and took advantage of the more powerful computers of today to figure out even better routes. The scientists involved estimate that they can be used to go from Jupiter to Neptune in less than decade.

Didn’t the Voyagers take about a decade to go through the same distance? Yes, they did, but they took advantage of the alignment of planets to do so, and that is something that won’t happen everyday. The thing about these space highways is that they are reliable, that is, no matter the position of the planets, there will always be a path of least resistance that the craft can use.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are nearing the age of interstellar travel. Ten years is still a pretty long time. If you consider that the distance from Jupiter to Neptune is of about 0,04 light-years, and the distance to closest star system is about a hundred times that, then you know we still have a problem in that matter.

However, missions within our solar system will certainly benefit from that. Considering that the Voyager probes will reach the end of their lifespan in about 2025, this gives us the hope that crafts with similar missions may go beyond them in a much shorter time, and investigate many of the strange things that lie just beyond our solar system within our own lifespan. Who knows what we will find.