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Ukraine invasion threatens international collaboration in space and shows how power structures are changing – podcast

The international space station in orbit above Earth.
Russia threatened to withdraw from the International Space Station over sanctions imposed on the country following its invasion of Ukraine. 3Dsculptor via Shutterstock

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is challenging the structures of international collaboration in space. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we talk to two experts about how space is entering a new era of international competition – and whether the existing laws are ready for what comes next.

Space has historically been a surprisingly collaborative place. Even during the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union and the US made decisions that were mutually beneficial to both nations. As more nations developed their own space agencies in the last decades of the 20th century, the era of international collaboration in space put forth its crown jewel, the International Space Station (ISS).

A remarkable system of agreements and laws allow more than a dozen different countries to run such a complicated feat of science in orbit. But as David Kuan-Wei Chen, the executive director of the Center for Research in Air and Space Law at McGill University in Canada, explains, the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is putting this cooperation to the test, with Russia threatening to withdraw from the ISS. “Like all international agreements, these provisions are in place to prevent the unnecessary escalation of political disputes which threaten to completely derail 20 to 30 years of unprecedented cooperation in space,” he says.

The ISS may be the most high-profile recent dispute in space, but in the last decade or two, there’s been a subtle yet important shift in how nations approach missions in space. Svetla Ben-Itzhak is a professor of space and international relations at Air University in the US and has a name for the emerging system. “In the past, we had individual countries leading in space. However, now most countries are not acting alone. The trend has been that countries that partner on the ground also come together to accomplish specific missions in space. I call these formations space blocs,” she says.

Instead of individual countries collaborating on big scientific missions, now groups of allied nations are competing against each other.

In the full episode of the podcast, we talk to Ben-Itzhak about how space blocs emerged, why they are likely to be the main avenue of power in the future and what this means for the prospects of war in space. Then, with Chen we explore whether existing space law is adequate to meet the challenges in space today and how two future missions to the Moon highlight all the gray areas of what is legal and what isn’t once you leave Earth.

Read more: Space Blocs: The future of international cooperation in space is splitting along lines of power on Earth

This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced by Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

Newsclips in this episode are from WION, BBC News, CBS News, ABC News, France24 English, CBS Evening News and the Associated Press.

You can listen to The Conversation Weekly via any of the apps listed above, download it directly via our RSS feed, or find out how else to listen here.

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