April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

florida from space

Taken during the STS-95 mission from a point over Cuba, this photo shows an oblique, foreshortened view of the Florida Peninsula, with the light blue, shallow seafloor of both the Florida Keys (curving across the bottom of the view) and the Bahama banks (right). "Popcorn" cumulus cloud covers Miami and the Southern Everglades, although the built-up area from Ft. Lauderdale to West Palm Beach can be discerned. Lake Okeechobee is the prominent waterbody in Florida. Cape Canaveral is shown well, half way up the peninsula. Orlando appears as the lighter patch West (left) of Cape Canaveral, near the middle of the peninsula. Cape Hatteras appears top right, with the North part of Chesapeake Bay also visible. This is a visibility of 16 degrees of latitude (23 degrees N over Cuba to 39 degrees at Baltimore), showing unusual atmospheric clarity. Credit: NASA

An Outer Space Treaty

History could have followed a far more harrowing path, were it not for a vital international agreement – the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Space has been designated as mankind’s province for all of civilisation. Many of our noblest and most technologically astounding pursuits have been achieved there. After escaping the atmosphere and gazing back at earth, many astronauts have recounted feelings of intense unity and a determination to protect our planet. Whilst this current notion of a unified apolitical cosmos is romantic and inspiring, it should not be taken for granted. History could have followed a far more harrowing path, were it not for a vital international agreement – the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Devastation on this scale was unprecedented, sending the world into shock. Both cities were completely annihilated, leaving no doubt that the Second World War had irreversibly transformed the nature of conflict. From the ashes of one international crisis, another arose in the form of the Cold War. The temporary alliance formed between the US and USSR during World War Two quickly dissolved after its conclusion. Both nations had starkly contrasting economic and political perspectives, leading to decades fraught with tension. Since the threat of nuclear conflict was apparent, this war was instead characterised by espionage, proxy wars and displays of technological prowess.

The establishment of the USSR as a nuclear power was firmly established after their so-called ‘First Lightning’ fission bomb was detonated in 1949. Both nations had much to fear from their nuclear adversaries, but they lacked the means to deliver warheads rapidly and accurately. Research was concentrated on advancing rocket performance, allowing nuclear weapons to be carried across continents. However, scientists and engineers soon realised that this new missile technology needn’t be constrained to military purposes. Unlocking a new frontier was on the horizon; the race to space had begun.

Sputnik 1 catalysed the pursuit to conquer the cosmos after it launched in 1957. Originally designed as an inter-continental ballistic missile, an R-7 launch vehicle carried the Soviet satellite into space. Scrambling to claim back Earth’s orbit, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was soon established by the US. This did not prevent the USSR from extending their lead, however; Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to escape the atmosphere in 1961. A retaliation by America sent Alan Shepard into orbit one month later aboard Freedom 7. Tension was building between the nations, as the more sinister applications of this spacefaring technology became apparent.

Advances in nuclear weapons technology did not slacken with the advent of the space age. Atomic bombs were tested more frequently than rockets were launched. Countless explosives of terrifying destructive power had been tested up to this point, but 1961 saw the creation of the most powerful weapon in history. The Tsar Bomb was detonated on a North Western Russian archipelago, yielding an explosion 1,500 times greater than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined [1]. Despite being a weapon of comical impracticality, the test was a chilling display of military might.

A crossroads had been reached in the ‘60s regarding the future of humanity’s relationship with space. Military advances had been intrinsically linked to the emergence of space travel up to this point. Preserving it for peaceful use would be undermined by the potential transformation to “an area of dangerous and sterile competition,” stated the then US President Dwight Eisenhower. As the race to the moon began in full force, both superpowers understood that a mutual commitment to the conservation of space had to be formed. On 10 October 1967, the United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union signed a treaty prohibiting the instalment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space and committing to the use of all celestial bodies for purely peaceful purposes. Entering this agreement may have prevented space from descending into a militarised nightmare, but there is much debate around its relevance in today’s radically different spacefaring landscape.

Whilst there have been no attempts to place any weapons in orbit to date, space is still intrinsically linked to military activity. Currently, over 1,419 operational satellites are in orbit around the planet [2]. Communications and positioning have been transformed after their widespread usage, but these benefits have not solely been enjoyed by the civilian population. Developing more advanced tracking systems may improve spaceflight missions, but missile-tracking ability would advance in parallel. Communications satellites have made navigation almost effortless. But the same GPS that facilitates this publicly available technology also allows troops to navigate combat zones undetected. Satellites are invaluable military tools and, in many regards, have already militarised Earth’s orbit.

History has begun to repeat itself as burgeoning spacefaring nations take to the stars. China has been fiercely competing with India to gain technological prestige on the global stage. The US considers China’s advances to have a detrimental effect on peace in space [3]. Only weapons of mass destruction are explicitly prohibited in space, leaving nations other options to position offensive measures in orbit. Kinetic bombardment is one such example, involving the deployment of tungsten rods from orbit. The velocities they can reach whilst approaching the surface would cause devastation on impact. Since 2013, the US has actively investigated space warfare technologies including lasers and electromagnetic pulses. Not only are more entities encroaching on space, but their motives for doing so have greatly diversified. As many terrestrial resources are depleting, private companies, such as US-based Planetary Resources, are looking to asteroids and other celestial bodies to mine for a wealth of resources. This could contravene Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, detailing “celestial bodies, [are] not subject to national appropriation” [4]. If this is allowable, the treaty may no longer provide holistic guidelines for safeguarding space.

It seems that space-based combat may be inevitable, and extra-terrestrial resources could be appropriated. Space laws could therefore certainly benefit from some reform. The Outer Space Treaty was only effective owing to the mutual benefits for both parties involved. A new treaty should take a similar approach, whilst acknowledging changes in the geopolitical climate and new technologies. Commercialisation of some aspects of space are inevitable, but a sustainable approach that preserves extra-terrestrial environments and limits exploitation should be taken. Satellites are often cloaked with secrecy, but a new convention should ensure that their function is transparent to prevent any covert militarisation. If weapons are installed in orbit, they should have a clearly defined defensive role. Space is still the domain of all humanity; military activities should not be of the surreptitious nature typically expected terrestrially. An agreement where all parties benefit will ensure the universe is kept universal. Another Cold War would be quite nice to avoid.


1. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170816-the-monster-atomic-bomb-that-was-too-big-to-use 2. https://www.pixalytics.com/sats-orbiting-earth-2016/

3. Legum, M. THE USE OF OUTER SPACE FOR MILITARY PURPOSES : Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty. (2013).

4. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2196392. 57, 1026–1028 (2018).


Abdul Zafar is studying for a BSc in Chemistry at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Florida From Space, NASA / Flickr