Dave Webb, Chair of Yorkshire CND, responds to the first space launch attempt from the UK, which took place this week.
Virgin Orbit recently attempted, but failed due to an ‘anomaly’ after take-off, to launch nine small satellites into orbit from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay. Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet, was trying to carry LauncherOne, a two-stage rocket, under its wing to 35,000 feet. There it was released, and would have carried 9 mini-satellites into orbit, had the second stage of the rocket not failed.
This attempt was the first ever satellite launch from the UK and had been highlighted as important for the UK space industry and for the scientific payloads – but little was discussed about the four military satellites on board. Two were for Prometheus 2 – a joint Ministry of Defence and US National Reconnaissance Office communications and surveillance project, and two others were for CIRCE – jointly developed by the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the US Naval Research Laboratory to help develop long-range communications and radar.
The MoD sees space as ‘fundamental to military operations’ and the UK is becoming part of a space arms race which is increasing global instability. But the UK cannot do it alone – last year the UK and US Space Commands signed an agreement for deeper military cooperation in space. US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is also establishing its own spaceport in the Shetland Islands.
However, 56 years ago, on 27 January 1967, both countries signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST) which states that ‘the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all [hu]mankind.’ It was meant to preserve the space environment – but the rapid growth of space activities is causing overcrowding and pollution problems for that environment. Military goals to dominate space and commercial competition to exploit it have become the major driving forces and major users are acting according to their own self-interests, contrary to the common good.
The militarisation of Spaceport Cornwall has not gone unopposed, however. ‘For Heaven’s Sake’, a joint CND/Drone Wars publication about the UK’s role in the militarisation of space was launched in 2022 and, last October concerned Newquay residents gathered at the spaceport to protest at the proposed launch.
It now seems that the first launch of a satellite from the UK might occur from Lockheed Martin’s SaxaVord spaceport on the island of Unst in the Shetlands. Although described as a ‘commercial spaceport’, Lockheed Martin’s involvement will surely mean that military interests will be involved at some stage. There are also other spaceports being developed in the UK, all aiming to launch satellites in 2023 or 2024.
The dangerous arms race in space must continue to be opposed – the reliance on space and development of anti-satellite weapons increases the danger to key military satellites (including those used for early warning), which could have disastrous consequences. The ideals of the OST provide a cooperative and peaceful vision for space which must be taken seriously.