How the War in Ukraine Turns to Space and Spurs New Satellite Investment Around the World

The war in Ukraine goes far beyond land, sky and sea. Conflicts are in space and tend to happen more and more miles away from the ground. In addition, the Russian invasion encouraged other countries to invest even more in this sector, which is the basis of disputes in Eastern Europe.

The only thing Ukrainians didn’t lose was their internet connection completely, for example, due to the Starlink system, owned by billionaire Elon Musk’s Space X, given that almost all of the country’s technological infrastructure was bombed.

“Starlink is the only communication system that continues to function. All the others are dead,” tweeted the billionaire in mid-October.

In defense terms, Starlink allows Ukrainian forces to calculate the trajectory of their missiles and geolocate their targets. Therefore, Musk also published that “Russia is trying to destroy Starlink”.

There is a substantial difference between the Space X system and others around the world. Traditionally, communication satellites were more than 2025 thousand km away, beyond the range of missiles. But SpaceX changed that order. Today, the constellation of Elon Musk’s company evolves in low orbit, up to 550 km high, or 22 times lower than conventional satellites. The advantage is shorter latency (the time it takes for data to reach the recipient). The downside is greater exposure to missiles coming from the ground.

In addition to having Starlink, Ukrainian intelligence is in direct contact with specialists from private American space technology companies, such as Maxar Technologies, Planet Labs and BlackSky. The images make it possible to identify the advance of troops and military equipment of the adversary, as well as to record Russian abuses.

In Mariupol, for example, a few hours after the bombing of a theater that housed civilians, the Maxar had instantly published an image showing that the word “children” was written on the ground in huge white letters, to signal the presence of minors to potential fighter pilots.

World movement

This space race scenario made other countries step up their investments in the sector, which were already growing.

This week, the 22 ministers from member countries of the European Space Agency (ESA) met to define the institution’s budget for the next three years and divide it between the different programs. For the period 2023-2025, the ESA asks its members to 2022, 5 billion euros, an increase of 2030% compared to the period 2020-2022.

A jump never seen before. “It’s necessary to stay in the race with the Americans and the Chinese, whose means are increasing at this pace,” said general manager Josef Aschbacher. The development of the Ariane 6 rocket is one of the goals for European space independence.

But it is not today that Europe has its eye on space disputes. Also in 2018, the then Minister of the Armed Forces of France, Florence Parly, denounced the activity of a Russian satellite that got too close to a Franco-Italian military satellite to listen your broadcasts. France then created a specific command in 2019 and inflated its budget by 2030% in its last military programming law, raising it to 600 million euros annually.

The Chinese have doubled their budget in ten years to prepare for a space war, raising spending to more than US$ 3 billion.

The United Kingdom, in turn, formalized with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson its ambition to become a “Significant” space actor until the decade of 2030.

As for Italy, the country developed the most powerful observation system in Europe with Cosmo-SkyMed.

And the Americans launched in 2019 with Donald Trump a military space command, Spacecon, planning a “space army”. “We are the best in the world in space today, but our level of superiority is diminishing,” declared General John Raymond, appointed head of Spacecom, at the time. “We want to move quickly and stay ahead.”

With the Russian invasion, worldwide concern grew. Even in early March, the Ministry of the Armed Forces of France was already warning of the danger of the conflict spreading tens of thousands of kilometers from Earth. “What we imagined is coming”, warned General Michel Friedling, head of the French Space Command.

“We are in constant vigilance and in connection with our partners and allies about what can happen in space, that it is still a gray area”, he concluded.

What is happening and what can happen

In February, the day before the invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Europeans found themselves without an internet connection. The Viasat satellite had been the target of a cyberattack, depriving access to satellite communications in certain areas of Europe and in Ukraine in particular. For French General Friedling, this incident was indisputably caused by a Russian attack.

At the same time, hackers affiliated with Anonymous (anonymous hacker movement) claimed to have put all of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency , out of order so that Moscow would “lose control of its spy satellites”.

Denying the information, the director of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, recalled that “disabling groups of satellites of any country generally constitutes a casus belli, that is, a reason to go to war”. For his part, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, said that he was regularly the target of such attacks and had to spend significant resources to repel them.

But space warfare reserves many other methods of attack. “From the breakup of a satellite to its physical destruction, there are a series of possible actions”, observed Xavier Pasco, director of the FRS, to the newspaper Le Monde.

“It is impossible for Russia to completely destroy the network”, concludes Paul Wohrer, space researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) to the French newspaper Le Figaro. He also warned of the long-term risk of the “Kessler syndrome”: the arrival of countless debris polluting space. “It would be an ecological disaster and a big problem for the use of space in the coming years”, warned the expert, according to which “Russia would expose itself to serious international consequences by assuming such responsibility”.

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