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As we enter a new era of space exploration, strategic countries are forming geopolitical alliances to propel commercial development—and to forge new military capabilities. On November 15, 2021, the Russian military conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite test that blew up a Kosmos-1408 satellite, sending at least 1,500 pieces of debris into space. The show of force was a major escalation of Russian space military ops—and debuted a new form of off-planet technology never publicly demonstrated before. Within minutes, astrophysicists warned that debris could potentially collide with spacecraft for many years to come and lead to dangerous outcomes. That ring of debris now lurks in the middle of a critical 120-mile area—above it hovers the International Space Station, and below it lies commercial satellite space, where the SpaceX Starlink fleet orbits. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution, drafted by the UK and signed by 21 countries, agreeing that participating member states should share information about their space security policies and activities they deem irresponsible or existentially threatening. But it failed to prevent Russia’s anti-satellite test. China is working to make its space research, equipment, and artifacts available to foreign researchers as part of a broader diplomatic effort. Now in operation of the world’s largest radio telescope, the country has acquired fresh moon samples, the first in nearly 45 years. Since 2011, Congress has banned NASA from using its funding for joint research activities with China or Chinese-owned companies. Would it ban NASA from working with researchers who currently contribute, or have previously, to Chinese research? If so, that could significantly reduce the agency’s options, given China’s aggressive outreach efforts.

Space diplomacy

KEY TRENDS

The new Space Race