2022: The World This Year

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2022: The World This Year
The Space race: Scaling new technological feats

  Harini Madhusudan

TWTW#196, 31 December 2022, Vol. 4, No. 45


What happened?

In August 2022, South Korea launched its first lunar orbiter Danuri by a Falcon 9 rocket which was inserted into the lunar orbit on 16 December 2022. In November 2022, the US kicked off their Artemis Mission with the Space Launch System or SLS, a new launcher for NASA’s Artemis. The mission also included a partially reusable crewed spacecraft called Orion, and as secondary payloads, the Artemis 1 transported many small lunar research spacecrafts. In December 2022, the private moon mission of Japan’s i-space, called Hakuto-R Mission-1, and the Lunar Excursion Vehicle-1 also called Transformable Lunar Robot were launched by Falcon 9. The same mission carried Rashid Lunar Rover flying the Emirates Lunar Mission. 

In January, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) began functioning and would be an upgraded version that would replace the capabilities of the Hubble telescope. Early images released from the JWST are said to have given an insight into the cosmos that are changing previously known scientific knowledge. Besides these, rocket innovation and new launcher capabilities were introduced during the year. In September 2022, NASA’s DART mission demonstrated first ever planetary defence in deep space missions with its capability to deflect an incoming asteroid away from its trajectory. In 2022, a total of 183 satellites were launched, with 175 successes. Armenia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Moldova, and Slovenia had their first space missions during the year.

The war in Ukraine was the first time the commercial space sector actively participated in the military activities of Ukraine, offering real time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data on troop movement and locations for early warning and precision strike capabilities. Private commercial space players offered electro-optical imagery, SAR, and RF data providers were known to be working with jammers. Communications aide was provided through US-based satellite constellations and the antenna were provided to Ukraine through Starlink. By March 2022, the international sanction regime began to impact Russia’s space program. Several launch schedules on Russian soil or using Russia-made technology were suspended, OneWeb’s six launches were cancelled and moved to another agency. ESA and Roscosmos’ EXOMARS 2022 Mars mission was suspended in the early months of the war. 

Space Stations: In December 2022, the Russian Soyuz docked to the International Space Station faced a severe coolant leak from a hole in its radiator exterior. The preliminary assessment of the cause is likely a micrometeoroid space debris. In July 2022, Russia announced that it would not renew its cooperation with the ISS in order to construct and launch their own space station. The ISS is in the last years of its lifecycle. In October 2022, China completed the construction of its Tiangong Space Station.

Responsible Behaviour Negotiations: From May-September 2022, the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs held the Open-Ended Working Group discussions on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour. This was done in assessment of the current and future threats from States to space systems, and actions, activities and omissions that could be considered irresponsible by taking a stock of the existing legal regimes and other regulatory-normative frameworks in the area. 

What is the background?

First, inevitable fallouts of terrestrial conflict. Despite not having any satellite of their own, Ukraine had access to unprecedented amounts of commercial satellite imagery. Space ISR helped identify the initial build-up of Russian forces before the invasion on 24 February and the movement of troops and military hardware ever since. Satellites were also used to track Russian warships in the Black Sea, including the cruiser Moskva, sunk by Ukraine. For communication and active internet access, Starlink has provided their services to the Ukrainian state. The active participation of Maxar, Starlink, and PlanetLabs, are popularly known to have aided the Ukrainian troops in strategic planning. The war in Ukraine demonstrated the potential of space-based assets in their operational support during Wartime. 

Second, renewed interests in Lunar Space. Since 2020, there has been a renewed interest on Lunar space owing to the reduction of mission costs over the decades. There is surging military interest in placing strategic assets in cis-lunar space. On the one side, the US intends to use its Artemis program to establish a regular presence on the lunar surface and increase its human travel (through tourism, mining, preservation of heritage sites) On the other side, Russia and China are working towards a Lunar Research Module to further their research interests. 

Third, broadening geopolitical competition and engagement in Space. The private space industry has evolved to take up the early responsibilities of national space programs, primarily by providing technical and logistical assistance, and offering practical solutions through private investments. Commercial space players partake the burden of state investments. State missions have shifted towards strategic/ military sectors. As of 2022, there are about 70+ countries that have active space programs, and over 10,000 private space companies in Outer Space. While the space powers such as the US, China and Russia are engaged in active competition in space, other space powers have expanded their capabilities in advanced communications, surveillance and observation capabilities.

Fourth, miniaturisation and sustainability-driven technologies. Miniaturised satellites are cost-effective, have a short-term lifecycle, and perform advanced functions. Small satellites are used in wireless communications networks, for scientific observation, data gathering, and monitoring the earth using GPS. Newer capabilities have emerged with the nano satellites enable secure communications for telemetry and tele-commands using high-speed X- and K-band frequencies. In advanced space manufacturing, advanced robotics, 3D printing, and light-based manufacturing lead the innovation. The sector has seen successes in reusable launch vehicles, space shuttles, automation and satellite sensors technologies. Space Data management succeeded in providing almost real-time inputs.

Fifth, timely discussions on regulating behaviour in Orbital Space. Orbital space crowding and fears of a Kessler’s scenario encourages responsible space behaviour. Increased participants in space explorations demands more than voluntary compliance to ensure safety. In November 2021, The UN First Committee released a resolution on norms of responsible behaviour and adopted five resolutions related to outer space. This led to the creation of the OEWG on Responsible space behaviour discussions in 2022. 

About the authors

Harini Madhusudan is a Doctoral Scholar at the National Insitute of Advanced Studies. 

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