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Pathfinders:

The final frontier

A row has blown up between the US Congress and Nasa over people-carriers. Congress is insisting that Nasa stick to its plan of developing a rocket capable of taking manned missions beyond low earth orbit by 2016, which Nasa sniffily says it can't do (New Scientist, 22 Jan). Presumably Congress doesn't want Richard Branson or SpaceX to corner the space tourism market but the warring parties seem to have overlooked what the US Air Force is up to. The military has just lobbed a highly classified 13 tonne satellite into space aboard a Delta IV rocket (BBC News, 21 Jan) and could presumably be modified to do the same thing for a crewed spacecraft. This is the second huge satellite sent up by a Delta rocket in the past three months on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office, which reports to the CIA and the Department of Defense. The NRO are of course keeping zipped about the payloads but surveillance is the most likely purpose.

Congress is also doubtless embarrassed that Uncle Sam is having to rely on Russian rockets to get its own and the European Space Agency's astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS), now that the space shuttle fleet has been all but mothballed. Once considered a lunatic folly and, at around $160bn, estimated to be the most expensive object ever constructed, the ISS has survived cuts, shuttle disasters, air leaks, meteorite punctures and bad press to acquire an almost iconic status. In space technology, anything that actually works for longer than 6 months tends to do that, like Hubble and the Mars Rover. The Italian astronauts currently cooped up in this flying garage are texting, twittering, Facebooking and doing live TV interviews, while some genuinely useful science is also being done in the microgravity conditions.

In defiance of the recession, the space business is booming, due largely to satellite broadcast services like BSkyB. UK space companies are reported to have a turnover of £7.5bn with a 15 percent annual rise in employment (BBC News Online, 8 November 2010). With this kind of growth potential the UK government has now decided to get in on the act and start to sever its highly expensive commitments to the European Space Agency, the French and German dominated group which co-manages the ISS. This April, the UK Space Agency will be inaugurated with its own £200m annual budget, around one fifth of the space budgets of France and Germany. Meanwhile the European Commission has announced that the Galileo project, a 30-satellite GPS system for the EU, will cost around ?5bn, just one day after a senior Galileo contractor was sacked for calling the whole project 'a stupid idea' (BBC Online, 18 January).

Why stupid? Well, the sky is getting pretty crowded these days, with approximately 3,000 satellites in orbit. That they don't crash into each other too often is due to the vast ranges of these orbits, although two satellites the size of small cars did pile into each other at 27,000 miles per hour in February 2009. The US Space Surveillance Network is still trying to find all the pieces, on top of the 8,000 other pieces of junk they are tracking, all of them barrelling around the globe at 13 times the speed of a bullet.

The question a socialist would ask would be: do we need all these satellites, given that most of them do pretty much the same thing? Well, we don't, but the various competing sections of the ruling class do. The Navstar satellites that make up America's GPS system are controlled by the military, giving the US a huge advantage in any future power-plays as well as wars. First to break the GPS dependence was Russia, with its Glonass system, then the US tried to stop the EU developing Galileo. Now every country that can buy or borrow the technology is lofting its own satellites and GPS systems into space, for fear of being shut out by enemies or simply by trade competition. In January China announced development of its own Beidou Navigation System. India meanwhile has sent up 7 satellites and would have sent up another one last month but the rocket blew up. 52 countries currently have payloads in orbit and the rockets just can't go up fast enough.

Of course the various countries are talking about making their GPS systems compatible so they can share, but that's not what they're up there for. Any future war without satellite navigation and surveillance is unwinnable, as Iraq found out twice. Even Belarus, Colombia and Iran have their own satellites. Ominously, both the USA and China have in recent years used surface missiles to shoot down their own satellites, but rockets will only reach so far. Those in medium to high earth orbit would require space-based technology, possibly lasers, which would have to be pretty hefty, possibly requiring a heavy lift rocket like the Delta IV.

On the positive side, a former SpaceX engineer has started a fund to buy a comms satellite from a bankrupt firm and plant it in geostationary orbit where developing countries can use it (New Scientist, 22 January). Buythissatellite.org argues that internet access is a human right, but more pragmatically points out that since India is now bringing out a $12 laptop there is no great reason why everybody can't get online. So far the fund has raised $30,000, which wouldn't pay for a rocket's spark plug. Funny that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, now valued at $50bn, hasn't thought of buying himself some popularity by putting up the cash. In socialism, it hardly needs saying, there would be no issue here. Press a button, move satellite, end of.