Tag: US Air Force

China Quietly Launches ‘Reusable Experimental Spacecraft’

Article by Eric Mack                                   September 4, 2020                                    (cnet.com)

• On September 4th, with little fanfare China’s state-run Xinhua media outlet announced the launch of a “reusable experimental spacecraft” from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Space industry watchers believe it to be some sort of unmanned space plane similar to the X-37B operated by the US Air Force and Space Force, that the Chinese have been developing since 2017.

• The statement reads: “After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space.”

• The mission was conducted under a veil of secrecy with no official launch photos, and not even the time of launch made public. Jonathan McDowell with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics speculated that China’s secrecy “leads one to think this is not only a space plane, it’s a military space plane”.

[Editor’s Note]   While the Chinese test flight lasted two days, the Americans have kept its umnanned X-37B aloft in space for more than two years. (see previous ExoArticle on the X-37B craft)

To be fair, the Air Force is just as secretive about its X-37B craft. But the unmanned Chinese craft, called ‘Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi’ (translation: ‘Repeat Use Test Space Craft’) returned safely two days after the September 4th launch. Interestingly, it appears that the Chinese craft released an object into space before returning back to the Earth. (see follow-up article “China’s reusable experimental spacecraft returns to Earth after two-day mystery mission”)

 

China says it has successfully launched a “reusable experimental spacecraft” under increased levels of secrecy. Space industry watchers believe it to be some sort of unmanned space plane similar to the X-37B operated by the US Air Force and Space Force in recent years.

              US Air Forces’ X-37B

A short statement from China’s state-run Xinhua media outlet announced the launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Friday.

“After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space,” the statement reads.

The mission was conducted under a veil of extra secrecy, with no official launch photos or even the time of launch made public.

“That leads one to think this is not only a space plane, it’s a military space plane,” said Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell on a European Space Agency sponsored Zoom conference Friday.

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Space Coast Air Force Members Transfer to Space Force

Article by Emre Kelly                                 September 4, 2020                              (floridatoday.com)

• On September 2nd, more than two dozen Air Force service members stationed on the Space Coast of Florida transferred to the Space Force. They are a small part of the 2,410 active-duty airmen that will transfer to the military’s newest branch before the end of the year.

• 26 airmen – 19 officers and seven enlisted – transferred during ceremonies at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All are assigned to either the space operations or space systems operations career fields.

• To transfer, airmen have to officially separate from the Air Force and re-commit to the Space Force under the same rank. Both officers and enlisted personnel must agreed to a two-year minimum active-duty commitment.

• “This is a momentous occasion for the Space Force and for each of these space professionals,” said Space Force leader Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said. “We intend to give our newest Space Force members and their families the special recognition they deserve.”

• What still remains to be seen are the planned name changes of the Space Coast’s two Air Force bases to Patrick Space Force Base and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. A ceremony was planned earlier this year, but the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold. A wing spokesperson confirmed the name changes will still happen, but the timeline is under review.

 

More than two dozen Air Force service members stationed on the Space Coast officially transferred to the Space Force on Wednesday, marking a small part of the overall effort to move thousands to the military’s newest branch before the end of the year.

             Gen. John “Jay” Raymond

The 45th Space Wing confirmed that 26 airmen – 19 officers and seven enlisted – transferred during small ceremonies led by their squadron commanders at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All are assigned to either the space operations or space systems operations career fields.

The local moves are part of a branch-wide effort that started Tuesday to transfer 2,410 active-duty airmen in those two roles to the Space Force over the coming months. The first batch includes airmen who volunteered for the transition in May.

To transfer, airmen have to officially separate from the Air Force during the ceremony and re-commit to the new service under the same rank. Both officers and enlisted personnel agreed to a two-year minimum active-duty commitment to the Space Force.

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Outdated Treaties and the Rush to Control Resources in Space

Article by Malcolm Davis                               August 31, 2020                                   (aspistrategist.org.au)

• The US Air Force Academy’s Institute for Applied Space Policy and Strategy has a ‘military on the moon’ research team set up ‘to evaluate the possibility and necessity of a sustained US presence on the lunar surface’. The focus of its report (see here) seems to be on the establishment a US lunar military base.

• The notion of a military base on the Moon has the space law community seeing red. Such a base would directly conflict with both the spirit and letter of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (see here), which provides that: “The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapon and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.” A military base on the Moon would also violate the 1979 Moon Treaty (see here), which no major space power has yet ratified. According to these treaties, no Earthly nation may establish a lunar military base, so long as that nation remains a signatory.

• Space law was developed for a different, more benign era and doesn’t adequately address the emerging dynamics of modern space activities. The framework of the treaties contain gaps that that an adversary could exploit in coming decades. For example, ‘commercial’ space operations can provide a convenient cover for states that wish to sidestep established law.

• The 1967 Treaty allows military personnel to be on the Moon for scientific ‘or any other peaceful purposes’, and states that ‘the use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited’. This leaves a lunar facility’s role open to interpretation. Is it a commercial base or an undeclared military facility?

• Article IV of the 1967 Treaty extends to both military and private commercial activities in space. “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by government agencies or by non-governmental entities.”

• The 1967 Treaty states that space is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ However, the 2015 US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (see here) sets a precedent for legitimate activity by permitting a commercial company to secure, own and profit from a space resource. This creates a grey area between lawful commercial activities and illegal claims of sovereignty. Safeguarding access to a resource, and preventing a competitor from intruding, implies the necessity of security that the 1967 Treaty wasn’t designed to manage.

• In April 2020, President Trump signed an executive order ‘encouraging support for the recovery and use of space resources’… consistent with applicable law’. The Trump administration then released the Artemis Accords (see here) designed to establish a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space. In the accords, ‘all activities [on the Moon] will be conducted for peaceful purposes, per the tenets of the (1967) Outer Space Treaty’. The Artemis Accords require the US and its partners to share information on the location and general nature of operations so that ‘safety zones’ can be created to ‘prevent harmful interference’. This implies the delineation of territory or a zone of control around a facility.

• While lunar military bases may be prohibited, competition for resource wealth in space will test the premise of the 1967 Treaty. States and non-state actors will inevitably compete for access to and control over resources in space, and for a permanent and exclusive presence where those resources are located.

 

The 2019 movie Ad Astra had a US military base on the moon and a memorable battle scene involving a moon rover, implying that by late this century the moon will be heavily militarised. A question now being discussed in space policy circles is whether fact will follow science fiction, as the US Space Force considers exactly what its role will be. It has some pretty ambitious ideas, and a recent report indicates that its thinking will be shaped by a deep astrostrategic perspective.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise when news emerged that a group of US Air Force Academy cadets are researching the idea of military bases on the lunar surface. The academy’s Institute for Applied Space Policy and Strategy has a ‘military on the moon’ research team that was set up ‘to evaluate the possibility and necessity of a sustained United States presence on the lunar surface’. The focus seems to be on a military base, though there’s little information on exactly what they’re planning.

But the very notion of a military base on the moon has the space law community understandably seeing red.

Such a base would directly conflict with both the spirit and letter of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), which provides the foundation for space law.

Article IV of the treaty states that: The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapon and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.

A military base on the moon would also violate the 1979 Moon Treaty, which Australia supports, though no major space power has ratified it. So that means no overt or declared lunar military bases, at least as long as all powers remain signatories to the OST.
The academy cadets would no doubt be aware of this. Why even consider such a move, then?

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