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DSEI 2019: Commercial space innovation presents military challenges

11th September 2019 - 16:00 GMT | by The Shephard News Team in London

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The most innovative communications and military computing equipment now comes from the commercial sector, rather than military R&D labs, Dr Stuart Eves, Consultant and Director at SJE Space, argued at DSEI on 10 September.

Speaking during a panel session on command and control in space, Eves also stated: ‘I think that the military has to get used to the fact that it’s working in an environment where it doesn’t necessarily just command information superiority.’

Eves noted how antiquated current laws around space are, saying ‘most legal precedent comes from treaties signed in the 1960s and 1970s’. He noted that much of this was signed by state actors, and that the world has moved on from this – a lot of space activity is now centred on the commercial sector.

‘The truly large constellations of satellites being proposed are coming from commercial companies,’ Eves said, referring to companies such as SpaceX (which aims to have the almost 12,000 satellite Starlink constellation up by the mid-2020s)  and Planet Labs (which has nearly 300 earth imaging satellites in space, 150 of which are active)

‘The investments by commercial companies have moved the areas of communications and computing way beyond some of the things that the military does.’

Eves discouraged the idea of the military using these commercial satellite constellations however, citing issues such as commercial satellites not having the proper protections needed for a military satellite – ‘protection costs money’. 

He noted that whilst it was commercially viable for a commercial satellite to have protections such as redundant components, there would be no viability for protection against a high-altitude nuclear blast, for example. The implication being that these satellites could be taken down by an aggressor with relative ease if they really wanted to.

Further issues that Eves discussed included the fact that commercial satellites are providing a service globally, and raised the issue of a commercial company having to ‘pick sides’ in any conflict, given items like penalty clauses, loyalty and commercial liability may be at play. 

Eves also noted that the commercial sector was pushing forward in space situational awareness (SSA). 

While historically space tracking had largely been done by radar, owned by nation states, recently companies such as LeoLabs have invested in to this sector and now own systems that will do a ‘much, much better job of providing surveillance of space'.

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