The United States unequivocally won the space race and, with it, uncontested dominance in low Earth orbit for roughly five decades. But the country's space dominance is not only beginning to show cracks, the whole system could literally crash due to the increasing threat of so-called “dangerous space incidents”—the specter of space weapons deployed by an upstart like China, North Korea, or Iran.
There’s mounting evidence, in fact, that China is actively testing new space weapons that could threaten the entire low Earth orbit ecosystem, which hosts of GPS, spy, and weather satellites and the International Space Station.
So far, the safety of low Earth orbit has persisted on the idea of mutually-assured destruction, the same idea that kept the United States and the Soviet Union from bombing each other off the face of the Earth during the Cold War. That tenuous arrangement has worked so far, but an increasing number of countries are gaining the technology to destroy a satellite, which is pretty concerning, according to Micah Zenko, a conflict prevention expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Generally, space is thought of as a free, “open” space for any country to launch satellites into, but in the case of any sort of Earthbound military struggle, the battlefield can easily extend into orbit.
“The US is the undeniable lead actor in space. You get officials talking about wanting open, transparent access to space, but then you talk to military commanders, and they talk about controlling space, denying access to space,” Zenko told me. “We want to promote an open space domain, but in times of crisis, the military wants to control space. Getting that balance is so difficult. So much space activity is conducted in total secrecy.”
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