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Recent events raise questions about the role of space in global politics


Revelations that U.S. intelligence officials are tracking Russia developing some kind of nuclear-powered space weapon have made for alarming headlines. Even with the caveat that it is not a nuke that could be fired from space, it raises questions about what is an increasingly competitive arena for global powers - space. Francesca Giovannini is the executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University. Welcome to the show.

FRANCESCA GIOVANNINI: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: The space race between Russia and the U.S. obviously has a very long history, but is the competition that we're seeing now - is it something different?

GIOVANNINI: I think this is exactly the right question to ask. So when you ask, what is different about this militarization of space? - well, it's not so much the technology, but it is how much our life has actually now come to depend on satellites. And so if you think about potential escalation in space, you are not only thinking about a war against satellites that control military forces, but you're also thinking about satellites that control phones, that control GPS, that control computers - right? - and on which the lifestyle, especially Western societies, have been based on.

RASCOE: How does this device that Russia is said to be developing fit into that?

GIOVANNINI: So there are two scenario that we have been discussing within the strategic community. And, of course, we should also remember that the intelligence that was leaked was sort of, you know, very partial, and so we actually don't know the full story, and I think it's important we acknowledge this. You know, there is one scenario that says, look. The Russians are actually working and have been working for a long time on what you consider a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon. And so if this weapon were to be detonated, you will actually be able to cause an extraordinary damage not only to one satellite but to a constellation of satellites.

But in my view, this scenario is actually quite improbable for one reason. If you place the nuclear weapon in space, yes, you can bring down many American satellites, but you will also create an enormous amount of debris, and you will also - might actually be able to hurt or affect satellites of other countries like China and India, right? So Russia, at some point, might be the cause of a significant damage of satellites also of its, you know, partnering countries.

RASCOE: So what is the scenario that you think is more likely?

GIOVANNINI: The scenario that is more likely is a anti-satellite jammer that is nuclear-powered. And the jammer is, you know, a system that would allow, for example, to disrupt communications, right? Jammers blind satellites in a way that make them almost useless. So you would not necessarily have debris or destruction, but you will actually have a massive disruption in communication and information flow.

RASCOE: So what would be the options for a U.S. response?

GIOVANNINI: In reality, the United States has known of the many programs the Russians are working on for quite some time. And in fact, you know, a few years ago, during the Trump administration, the U.S. decided to create a U.S. Space Force. And so one option could be that the United States develop similar capabilities, and they will actually then lock the Russians into sort of deterrence relations.

RASCOE: Kind of like with the nuclear weapons we have on Earth - the mutually assured destruction.

GIOVANNINI: Exactly. So you will create a sort of stability in space - not ideal, but there are other things, in my view, that the U.S. has been doing which I think are really, really important. The first one is the United States, since April 2022, has adopted a moratorium against the use of anti-satellite technology. And it has basically invited countries so that the countries accept unilaterally not to develop technology that could destroy satellites in space.

Last thing that the U.S. has started to do - the United States has moved away from these large satellites, right? And it has actually adopted much smaller, cheaper satellites. If you think about the famous Starlink that is so important for the Ukraine military forces to command drones and so on, so forth - the satellites are very small. And so what the U.S. can do is to create a multitude of constellations of satellite and to create a redundancy system so that even if the Russians jam one or two constellations, the U.S. has, you know, a sort of safety system.

RASCOE: You talked about all of the space debris and the problems with that. Is that a concern for us down here on Earth?

GIOVANNINI: This is not a concern that I would say would play, for example, in the short or medium term. But I think if we continue to allow countries to develop technology to bring down their own satellites or adversary satellites, the generation of debris is going to be so consequential that at some point in space, we might no longer be able to be safe in terms of space missions or launch of new satellites because this debris might actually become a real, you know, safety issue.

Scientists are concerned about what we call the Kessler Syndrome. And the Kessler Syndrome basically means that you might, at some point, have so many debris in space that these debris start clashing against one another and then clashing against satellites, pushing satellites to crash against other satellites, making space fundamentally inhabitable. Now, of course, this is extreme scenario, but it tells you that we have to be way more intentional about the technology we develop, right? It's not only the militarization between two countries. It is now a global domain for competition and cooperation.

RASCOE: That's Francesca Giovannini from the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University. Thank you so much for joining us.

GIOVANNINI: Thank you again for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "DEJA VU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.