THE discovery that Mars could contain water may inspire the next generation of explorers, but it may also lead to the commercialisation and militarisation of space.
NASA’s stunning announcement this week could potentially spark a new space race and also drive competition over who will dominate our universe.
The “weaponisation of the space domain” was already noted as a likely future scenario in an analysis reportedly published last November by the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre.
James Clay Moltz, an associate professor in the department of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, has been warning for years that an Asian space race could already be underway, potentially involving China, India, South Korea, Japan and other countries.
There is potential for this space race to transform into an Asian arms race, a possibility highlighted in 2007 when China destroyed one of its old weather satellites using an anti-satellite weapon on Earth, a move that shocked the international community.
While the possibility of salty water on Mars would not have a direct impact on this, it could bring this future closer.
“The militarisation of space won’t necessarily follow, or follow quickly from the discovery on Mars, but it fuels this reinvigorated debate about the commercialisation of space,” UNSW research fellow Dr Jai Galliott said.
A number of companies are already clambering to explore the commercial opportunities of space including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which aims to take passengers into near space and Space X, the private company founded by Elon Musk, which secured a contract from NASA in 2012 to send cargo to the International Space Station.
“If you go back to the 1960s, when the first government space race was heating up, every little boy wanted to be an astronaut,” Dr Galliott said.
“In the 1990s we’ve seen NASA fail in may ways, now with the commercialisation of space industry, things are starting to reinvigorate, and I think the exploration of Mars is partly feeding that.”
One company, Planetary Resources, even has ambitious plans to mine asteroids for rare minerals that could potentially be used for medical and engineering applications.
Dr Galliot, who has written a book Commercial Space Exploration, said this plan could have security implications for Earth if mining was to cause an asteroid to fracture or change its trajectory, like something out of the plot of movieArmageddon.
“We don’t know enough about these environments to start toying around with them,” he said.
There is even debate about advertising in space, including how high skywriting should be allowed and whether someone should be able to put a logo on the moon.
“People are already talking about that, believe it or not,” Dr Galliott said.
But one of the issues with space tourism and increased commercialisation of space, is it would result in more shuttles launching, meaning more space junk will be created.
Space junk includes used rocket stages, old satellites and fragments of equipment from previous missions that float around the Earth. It is already a big problem as it has the potential to collide with the growing number of communications satellites and GPS orbiting up to 30,000 kilometres above the planet.
The systems are used by the world’s financial services, for mobile phone and navigation systems, as well as for internet, aviation and television services.
Militaries have also come to rely on this technology for navigation, surveillance and as part of early warning systems for nuclear explosions and missile launches. If crucial satellites were damaged, this could have devastating consequences.
“In a time of war, this could cripple our military,” Dr Galliott said.
Increased commercialisation could also reinvigorate the space race, fuelling increased competition between countries for supremacy.
This would put pressure on international laws, which are currently inadequate to deal with the challenges of planetary exploration, especially when it comes to defence policy.
Dr Galliott, who is a research fellow of Indo-Pacific defence at UNSW, said the militarisation of space was essentially banned by the United Nations and international law but this did not mean it could not occur in the future.
“Everybody will want to make their claim and once that’s done, it lowers the barriers to put weapons in orbit,” he said.
The US space agency envisages its first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, if not sooner.
“If the US or NASA set up a remote base on Mars, there would be no way to determine what they are sending up there, whether that was a missile or nuclear reactor.”
He said it would only take one government or person to try and claim a particular thing and “we’ve got a problem”.
“A common argument is that things like the heavens, moon and Mars should be owned by all of mankind and not any particular nation, any moves to challenge that, could be problematic.”
He said there were already calls for laws to be reconsidered, around who should be sent into space, what medical and safety requirements they should have access to and whether it was ethical to send somebody into space on a one-way mission.
“It’s time to start considering these issues now before the genie is out of the bottle,” he said.
While Dr Galliott did not think we would be sending people to Mars anytime soon, he said the advances with robotics meant there was still a lot of potential in space exploration.
“The discovery of life potentially (on Mars) probably doesn’t directly have security implications, but indirectly it could fuel the space race and potential commercialisation of space.
“It fuels the general space race and that could potentially have disastrous consequences.”
Brett Biddington, the founder of Biddington Research, a Canberra-based consulting firm which focuses on space and cyberspace policy, agrees that a space race could be encouraged by the Mars discovery.
“It’s more likely in the next 10 to 20 years that there will be some competition between the main space players to set up a colony on Mars,” he said.
He said countries like US, Russia and China were the big players but there was also competition from Japan and India, which launched its first Mars orbiter for less than what it cost to make the Hollywood film Gravity.
He said there were two reasons why countries would be interested in colonising Mars, one was because of genuine interest in the science and environment but the other was for prestige reasons.
He agreed with Dr Galliott that in the short term he did not think the discovery on Mars would impact space security because it did not affect the orbit of satellites.
But he said space junk could make some orbits unusable because of the high probability of a collision.
“There’s a lot of work, especially in Australia to understand space junk and how to clean it up,” he said.
But the difficulty was that this required trust between countries because moving a piece of “garbage” could essentially become a weapon, as you could accidentally destroy a country’s working satellite.
In the far future, Mr Biddington said it was possible to envision a future where a planet like Mars was colonised and there were arguments, just like there were on Earth, potentially about access to scarce resources such as water.
“But we’re talking 50 to 60 years away, rather than 20 years,” he said.
“There’s a lot more science to be done first, we’re going to have to go out and get water and bring it back to Earth, or to a remote laboratory,” he said.
Mr Biddington believes there will be more focus on gathering evidence and information on things such as how much water there is, and whether there is life on Mars.
He also emphasised that the discovery of flowing water on Mars was something that the scientific community had suspected for a long time, and that space programs took decades to design, implement and launch.
“The science community was already planning missions, so you should think of (the discovery) as a continuity rather than a disruption.”