Tim Marshall is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster, specializing in foreign affairs and international diplomacy. He has reported from forty countries and is founder and editor of the current affairs site TheWhatandtheWhy.com.
Below, Tim shares five key insights from his new book, The Future of Geography: How the Competition in Space Will Change Our World. Listen to the audio version—read by Tim himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The Space Race 2.0.
It’s different this time. At the heart of the Space race of the 1960s was each side—the Soviets and Americans—trying to prove that its political system, technologies, scientists, and resolve was superior to the others. It was overwhelmingly led by the governments. And we know how that went.
This time there is less ideology, more actors, and far more of a commercial and military rationale. Major companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX are front and center in the commercial aspects of the new race, as well as helping NASA return to the Moon.
Satellites are now part of a country’s critical infrastructure, tied to their economic activity, the global economy, and for many countries, their war-fighting capabilities. Over the next decade tens of thousands of satellites will be launched for both commercial and military reasons. We need these machines for our GPS systems, to guide ships and planes, your Uber driver, and the people who drive the food to the supermarkets. Many of us receive our TV and radio programs from them. Space may be infinite, but low earth orbit, where most satellites fly, is not. Sure, it’s still an enormous area, but it could get crowded.
2. Mining the Moon.
The phrase, “There’s gold in them thar hills” is attributed to a character in Mark Twain’s 1892 novel, The American Claimant. The actual quote about the mountains in North Georgia is, “There’s millions in it.” When it comes to the Moon, both are true.
There is gold on the Moon, but that’s not what people are after. There’s silicon, iron, titanium, lithium, and more in them thar hills. Some of it is at the lunar south pole—where, in the same location, is something even more precious: water. You can drink it, extract oxygen from it, and extract hydrogen. All are very useful should you want to build a Moon base, and the U.S. and China both intend to have such things by the early 2030s.
“It will cost a fortune to get there and a fortune to dig the stuff up.”
NASA says that by 2026, we will see American astronauts walking on the surface of the Moon. In the long-term, its surface is expected to be the launch pad for getting to Mars. In the short-term, countries and companies are after the potential riches to be found on the Moon. Many of the elements there are the very things we need for our 21st century technologies, including those involved in renewable energy.
However, the economic viability of this is another thing. It will cost a fortune to get there and a fortune to dig the stuff up. Even if getting it to Earth, probably in the form of a space shuttle, is slightly cheaper as it doesn’t require much rocket fuel, it will still be an expensive endeavor.
However, which technologically-advanced country can afford the risk of not being there, and allowing their competitors to get what in a way is the 21st century version of oil? This is part of the geography of space. There are parts you want, parts you want to avoid, there are distances, terrains, and gravitational slingshots. Geography’s always important; it’s only where the important bits are that changes.
3. The Big Three.
More than 80 countries now have a presence in space but The Big Three are the USA, China, and Russia, in that order. They are the space superpowers. The USA remains in the lead, but China is accelerating. As for Russia, it will decline in space-exploring terms, but plough most of its budget into the military aspects of its space industries.
In the second tier are countries such as Italy, France, the UK, the UAE, Israel, Japan, and others. India has established itself as a leading player in this group as well, especially by boldly landing a spaceship where no one has landed a spaceship before —the lunar south pole.
“Countries can now use their satellite constellations to help small scale farmers know where best to plant crops and help plan road and rail networks.”
In the third tier are the dozens of countries whose presence in space is restricted to satellites. For example, Nigeria now makes its own cube satellites, many of these the size of a Rubik’s cube. Build 20 of them, put them in, for example, a SpaceX rocket, share the space with several other countries doing likewise, and once in orbit deploy your mini satellite in a constellation.
The price of having a presence in space has gone down because you can share the launch costs with others, and SpaceX has pioneered how to bring rockets back to Earth, land them, and reuse them. Countries can now use their satellite constellations to help small scale farmers know where best to plant crops and help plan road and rail networks to link countries which often struggle to trade with each other. Perhaps, in time, some of these states will have the budgets for space exploration, and perhaps even to profit from the potential riches of extracting minerals from the Moon. However, there is a problem, we’re talking about finite resources: first come, first served. Things aren’t always fair on Earth so why would they be so in space.
4. War in Space.
The first Gulf War is sometimes called the first “space war”—American missiles that were fired into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were mostly guided by satellites. The Russia/Ukraine war might be called the first war in which both sides have access to space assets. Russia has its own satellite network for surveillance, targeting, and guiding missiles, and Ukraine has been offered satellite imagery by friendly countries and has bought imagery from commercial countries. This has thrown up something new: in the first few days of the war, Russia took out the internet in large parts of the Irpin region. SpaceX flew in thousands of terminals capable of receiving its Starlink satellite internet service. Civilians could now contact loved ones and organize evacuation columns; however, the Ukrainian military jumped on the service and used it to target Russian troops. So, does that make Starlink a legitimate military target for Russia forces?
No Starlink satellite has been shot down, but from early in the war Russia has been trying to dazzle the satellites with laser beams fired from Earth. Most modern satellites have the capability to close the lens on their cameras when they sense a strong direct light so Starlink and Russia have been playing cat and mouse ever since. However, soon there will be more powerful lasers, ones capable of burning through to the computer chips in the satellites.
“No Starlink satellite has been shot down, but from early in the war Russia has been trying to dazzle the satellites with laser beams fired from Earth.”
Also in development is a range of “dual use” machines in space. Space debris is a huge problem. There’s so much metal flying around above the world that it is a constant danger to the satellites, as well as the International Space Station. One way to get rid of some of the bigger bits, such as a defunct satellite, is to use another satellite with grappling arms to seize it, and throw it into the atmosphere to burn up. However, what if your grappling armed satellite is creeping up behind my functioning satellite, the one which has part of my nuclear early warning system in it?
The Space Force units many countries now have are not yet about actual firing at each other in Space, especially as that would add to the debris, but that may come down the line. For now, they are used to enhance the capabilities of a country’s armed forces on Earth. However, what if one major country decides to arm its satellites? Most others surely will follow suit.
5. If only we had laws about this.
We do have the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and it’s not a bad template for new treaties; however, it has not kept pace with technology and economics. The Outer Space Treaty does say that no country can have sovereignty over space, the Moon, or any planets, but it is far less clear when it comes to commercial companies. Toyota has built vehicles capable of carrying several people on the Moon and together, with a Japanese mining and space company, is planning to go to the lunar south pole, dig up a shuttle’s worth of lithium, and bring it home. That stuff is part of the Moon—if you can’t own the Moon, can you sell it?
The U.S.-led Artemis Accords are supposed to give us guidelines about this and other tricky questions, but to date only 29 countries have signed up to them, and China and Russia are not involved—they have their own views. That satellite with grappling arms? How close can it come to another satellite? We have guidelines to prevent collisions; a potential collision can be seen at the very least hours in advance; and a small course correction can put miles of distance between them. However, that’s different to agreeing to how close you can come to a security asset without it being seen as a threat. There is a clear lack of clarity and agreement.
However, it’s not all negative. We now use space for many activities that benefit humanity. Satellites measure the temperature of the oceans to understand more about climate change, and we do medical experiments in space which save lives here on Earth. We have successfully deflected an asteroid to test if we might be able to do so with one heading for us, and going back to the Moon is the path to having a Planet B in case this one wears out. CalTech has captured the sun’s rays in space on a solar panel, turned the energy into a microwave, sent it to a receiving dish in California, turned it back into energy, and powered a light bulb. There are 24 hours of sunshine in space; if we can scale that, goodbye fossil fuels.
To listen to the audio version read by author Tim Marshall, download the Next Big Idea App today: