A picture of the debris in space that surrounds earth

The failed launch of satellites from Britain last week is just another episode in a space war that is developing above Earth. But rather than lightsabers and spaceships, it’s being fought with mini satellites funded by ­governments’ defence money.

Already the cosmos has become a playground for the eye-wateringly rich to expand their commercial horizons—from satellites to space travel.  But the billionaire space race is no longer just about rich boys and their toys.

Now they are competing for government money to protect the skies from the enemy—Earthly leaders, rather than little green aliens. “Ukraine woke up the world in a lot of ways,” Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart said last week.

Virgin Orbital was supposed to launch the first orbital satellite from Britain—and western Europe—last Monday at Spaceport Cornwall.  A Boeing 747 was to climb to an altitude of 35,000 feet, then drop the LauncherOne rocket loaded with nine satellite payloads that’d continue to Earth’s orbit.

But the engine propelling the second stage cut out prematurely, so the rocket and its payload fell back to Earth.  This was still heralded as a “new era for space” by Ian Annett, deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency.

Virgin Orbital—a US company by billionaire tax avoider and fraudster Richard Branson—supplies small satellites.  It launches its spacecrafts horizontally like an aeroplane, as opposed to Elon Musk’s SpaceX which uses vertical take off.

This is meant to offer rapid access to space for nations relying on other countries for suitable runways. It’s key to Britain’s ambition to control the growing market for commercial satellite services in low Earth orbit.  Constellations—collections of miniaturised, cheaper satellites—have been used by commercial companies since 2017 to send and receive data quickly.  

But now their advantages are ­whetting the appetites of military forces.  The new flexible satellite launches mean the commercial and the defence could be “50/50” in the lower orbit. That’s why the launching of some ­satellites last week had a darker side.

A big chunk were concerned with defence operations. The Ministry of Defence’s Prometheus-2—two ­shoebox-sized satellites—would’ve monitored radio signals including GPS and imaging. It was a collaboration with ­“international partners” including the US’s national reconnaissance office and navy. Another satellite for observation belonged to the Sultanate of Oman.

Already the US has set up the Space Development Agency, part of the US Space Force to protect its assets in space. Musk’s SpaceX activated its Starlink constellation over Ukraine after Russia invaded last February, with its communication links used by Ukraine’s military. And in October, leaders in Luxembourg signed a letter of intent with Virgin Orbit to develop a “rapid and flexible response to different threats”, for NATO and its allies.

The MOD in space is nothing new. But working with commercial companies in Earth’s lower orbit to escalate and cheapen information gathering, track missiles and aim weapons, is. It shows that wherever possible, capitalists will look to profit.  And for world leaders it’s an opportunity to take warfare to the next level, as well as their competition for global—and cosmic—domination.

British firms are rushing to make profit from the stars   

UK Space Command—set up by the MOD in 2021 and headed by the RAF—says space is “a congested and competitive domain.”  Hazards include space weather and junk, but also “nefarious activity, as competitors seek to maximise their advantage.”

It says its job is “to make space safe, secure, and sustainable for all generations.” In reality, it’s concerned with disruption to Britain’s use of space. There are both financial and imperialist aims at play.  The MOD sees space as a “war-fighting domain” and “fundamental to military operations”.

The MOD has been busy setting up spaceports to launch commercial satellites from Britain, rather than relying on Russia and Guiana.  Seven spaceports were proposed—five in Scotland, one in Wales, and in Cornwall in England. They are funded by council money as well as billionaire’s space cash.

Cornwall Airport in Newquay, with its 2,744 metre runway, has had £20 million in funding poured into it.  Some £7.35 million was from the UK Space Agency and £5.6 million from Cornwall council. Activists from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Drone Wars UK protested against the first satellite launch at the airport last October. 

Kate Hudson, CND general secretary, explained that space was the “new frontier for military escalation” and that “Billions of pounds are being spent on this new arms race which could instead be invested in helping to solve the current cost of living crisis,”

The MOD is also set to spend £5 billion in the next decade on Skynet 6—a military communications satellite scheme that began in the 1960s. Space is now a “sector” with a value of £14.8 billion a year according to UKspace, which could double to £30 billion by 2030.

Rich are polluting space 

The European Space Agency says there are an estimated 36,500 objects larger than 10cm floating around in space.  Even the debris that’s too small to see can kill you in your spaceship.

And a crowded orbit increases the risk of collisions.  Crashes create fragments, and small paint chips can whiz around to cause more collisions. Meanwhile, huge junk creates mass clouds of debris. As if polluting the planet wasn’t enough, the rich have the same lack of care for space.

A crowded universe? 

According to United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs’ records, there were 8,261 satellites orbiting the Earth as of January 2022. Only 4,852 of those were active as of December 2021. Large satellites weigh more than 1,000 kg. 

Medium-sized satellites range from 500 to 1,000 kg. In the range of small, minisatellites weigh 100-500 kg, microsatellites at 10-100 kg, nanosatellites 1-10 kg and picosatellites just 1 kg.

Cosmos is congested

In just a few decades the commercial market has filled the sky, making it harder to track satellites and prevent them from hitting each other. Astronomers say the likes of SpaceX took the problem of space traffic from annoying to problematic in only 40 years. 

And with increased militarisation, it can only get worse. Hidden military satellites risk severe space jams.  And SpaceX’s Starlink launched several thousand satellites, with plans to launch 42,000 more.

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