At first, media coverage of the story focused on Cruz’s supposed humiliation on Twitter. Then the story moved to Cruz’s criticism of Twitter, highlighting his detractors on the platform, but not his responses to them. And then the makers and shapers of public opinion, from the lowliest tweeter to the top news anchors, found something else to pounce on. Just another week in 2019 America.
But the story should have focused on the substance of Cruz’s remarks. Here’s what he said:
Since the ancient Greeks first put to sea, nations have recognized the necessity of naval forces and maintaining a superior capability to protect waterborne travel and commerce from bad actors. Pirates threaten the open seas, and the same is possible in space. In this same way, I believe we too must now recognize the necessity of a space force to defend the nation, and to protect space commerce and civil space exploration.
It’s about time we had more public dialogue about the security challenges presented by new space technologies. The rapidity with which these technologies have advanced over the past 30-40 years rivals that of chip technology, where capacity has doubled roughly every two years.
For example, in 1981, the reusable Space Shuttle brought the price to launch a kilogram into space down to $85,000. This enabled a global communications revolution as it was now cost-effective to launch satellites into orbit to relay and amplify radio telecommunications signals via an onboard transponder. That was nothing, however, compared to what was to come.
As launch costs continued to drop through the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of satellites were deployed, used not only for communications, but for remote sensing and navigation, including GPS. Today, thanks to new commercial aerospace entrants like SpaceX, the cost to launch a kilogram into low earth orbit has fallen by a factor of nearly 100, to only $950 per kilogram. By 2040, NASA estimates the cost will drop by another order of magnitude, to “tens of dollars” per kilogram.
At the same time as the cost to get a payload into space has plummeted, the size of these payloads has also plummeted. It is possible now to launch satellites weighing a few pounds that can perform the functions that used to require satellites weighing several tons. Thanks to advances in miniaturization technology, small satellites are now classified as “mini,” between 100 and 500 kilograms, “micro,” between 10 and 100 kilograms, “nano,” between 1 and 10 kilograms, and even “pico,” with a mass (including fuel) of under one kilogram.
This revolution in cheaper launch costs combined with far more satellite capabilities per kilogram has just begun. According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, as of January 2019, 8,378 objects have been launched into space since the space age began in 1957, and 4,987 of them are still orbiting the earth. Over the last two years, 835 satellites have been launched; that is, 10 percent of all the man made objects currently in space were sent there in just the last two years.
Now is a very good time to be talking about space piracy. Ten nations have now successfully launched satellites into orbit, including Iran in 2009, and North Korea in 2012. In recent years, Russia and China have both deployed advanced weapons systems in orbit, including a mobile laser system to destroy satellites in space, and Russia’s “space apparatus inspector.”
Physical threats to orbiting satellites aren’t the only sort of piracy we have to worry about. The availability of cheap high-power antennas makes satellites vulnerable to cyber attacks, such as eavesdropping, allowing cyber intruders to hear classified communications and even learn the location of the transmitters and receivers. Hackers may be able to hijack the operations of satellites, destroying their optical sensors or their batteries. It is even possible that hackers could turn communications satellites into microwave weapons, or into platforms to send viruses into ground based receivers.
Nobody laughs anymore when we discuss software piracy. Today, anyone with a high-power antenna can be a space pirate. The threats to our security in space now come from nations, terrorist organizations, and individuals. According to General Jay Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command, “space is a warfighting domain.”
Within our lifetimes, space industrialization will be a reality. And instead of protecting ships carrying spices from Indonesia to Europe, we will be protecting cargos carrying precious minerals from the spice islands of interplanetary space. If fusion reactors aren’t perfected first, within 50 years or less, we will also need to protect massive and very fragile satellite solar power stations as they beam terawatts of perpetual clean energy to receivers on earth.
Will America’s legacy in space be analogous to Spain’s humiliation on the high seas 400 years ago, when “pirates” commissioned by the Queen of England plundered the treasure of the galleons on the Spanish Main? Or will we step up, honoring our heritage as pioneers, and lead humanity’s charge into outer space?
The high frontier of space is more accessible than ever, and protecting our assets in space is more critical than ever. Concerns about “piracy” should spark serious discussion, not ridicule.
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