Space, the new frontier

(To Renato Scarfi)

The modern sophisticated communication, detection and control systems that use satellites have now become so important that they become an integral and sometimes decisive part of our way of life. Today we are so used to having certain abilities that we do not seem sufficiently aware of what, in the last 60 years, the technological advances connected to space have meant, achievements that have revolutionized our way of informing ourselves, of communicating, of weaving political relations with people. other countries, to heal, to lead our everyday life.

Above all, we do not seem aware that in the 60s Italy was already fully part of the group of the first in the sector of space projects, being the fourth country in the world (after the USA, USSR and Canada1) and the first in Europe to have autonomously built, launched, placed in orbit and controlled a completely Italian satellite, the result of ingenuity and national industrial capacity. The San marco 1, this is its name, on 15 December 1964 (following photo) in fact started the Italian space adventure and represented the first concrete historical result of the "San Marco project", which would soon be followed by construction and implementation of an Italian equatorial ocean launch platform, the first in the world2. Positioned off the coast of Kenya, at a latitude of 2 ° 54 'south, at the time it offered enviable conditions for the development of space activity. Together with the base, on the coast were also built houses and everything necessary to allow the technicians to be able to operate in the best conditions of life. Malindi thus became a well-known name and another milestone on the Italian journey towards space. On April 27, 1967, the San marco 2, becoming the first completely autonomous launch of Italy and Europe.

In the following years, for various reasons, the strategic advantage achieved in the 60s was lost, and other players successfully overlapped in the management of services related to the sector and in the consequent acquisition of international funds, relegating Italy to the role of contributor, competent and generous, but always a net contributor, not a main contractor.

The technical-operational aspects

Before addressing the strategic and economic discourse related to the question of the use of space, it is necessary to make a very quick reference to some fundamental technical-operational aspects of the launch of satellites, generally to be placed on equatorial geostationary orbits, as in this position they to "cover" larger areas than polar orbits could do. About eighty percent of the world's need for satellite-related services is, in fact, provided by satellites in equatorial geostationary orbit. This makes them strategically more interesting and economically more attractive also from a commercial point of view (television, communications, data, etc…).

As we know, the main problem with the launch is how reach the right speed to bring a given load to the chosen orbit. In this context, it should be emphasized that what is known as the escape velocity is the minimum velocity to be imparted to a spacecraft to escape the Earth's gravitational field or to place itself on a specific orbit. Now, if we take any point on the surface, the rocket at the start already has a certain speed due to the Earth's rotation. A speed which is intuitively zero at the poles and which increases proportionally to the cosine of the latitude until it reaches its maximum at the equator. As a result, launching at the equator is extremely beneficial because, if it launches eastward, our planet itself provides us with a significant free additional boost, which allows us to save fuel or add payload. A launch from the equator for a geostationary orbit in fact allows, for the same power used, to transport between 17% and 25% more mass than, for example, a launch from Cape Canaveral (located at 28 ° 30 'north latitude). If it were launched towards the west, however, the Earth's rotation would slow down our rocket. It is for this reason that the throws are always made towards the east, in order to use the earth's rotation motion as a slingshot.

Given the energy convenience of launching eastwards, there is a further problem, which the organizers must take into account, namely the need for the launch to take place having free spaces to the east, to avoid the fall on populated areas of the additional tanks and the stages of the carrier after their detachment, but also to avoid the danger of causing damage due to the possible fall of the carrier itself, or its scrap, in the unfortunate case of an accident in the early flight phases.

We all remember the terrible images of January 28, 1986, when the Challenger it exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the seven astronauts on board. A death toll that could have been enormously greater if there had been a densely populated area east of the launch point.

To understand the safety distances involved, it is enough to remember that, at the altitude and speed at which the first stage detachment normally occurs, the debris falls about 366 km from the launch point while, for the second stage, the fall occurs at about 1.600. km. This means that the home safety zone extends about 2.000 km east of the launch point. This limits the "useful" areas to a few areas around the world. If we look at a geographical map, we immediately notice that the narrow belt around the equator (where the "slingshot effect" is maximum), the areas "open" to the east and, therefore, useful for launching are much more numerous on the sea than on land.

But there are also relevant legal aspects to take into account. The launch activity from a fixed base, in fact, whether it occurs from a base on land or from a base located on a platform at sea, but within territorial waters, is intuitively subject to constraints that can be summarized with the need for authorization. by the State of jurisdiction and with the need to clearly divide the responsibilities (legal and economic) in the event of an accident during the various phases of the activity.

In this context, the authorization to build a fixed launch base in the jurisdiction of a State is not given for charity or team spirit, but is linked to an economic or political return from that same State. This adds significant costs and constraints to the users of the base. With regard to responsibilities, the "Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects" (which entered into force on September 1, 1972) is today inadequate, as it does not allow to clarify the responsibilities between the launching State, the it launches either the State from whose territory or from whose installations a space object is launched. It is therefore clear how a possible accident in the case, for example, of a German carrier, launched from a Russian base located on Indian territory (or territorial waters), could open interminable international disputes ... and expensive on the responsibilities and related compensation for any damage.

In summary, the best possible combination for launching space objects is the possibility of launching from an autonomous control base, located at the equator, in international waters and with sufficient uninhabited space to the east.

From the atomic age to the space age - The strategic aspects

When it comes to space, artificial satellites and safety, many come to mind the images of the famous film "007 A waterfall of diamonds" in which the villain Blofeld, from a platform in the sea (frame), built, placed in orbit and controlled a satellite that used countless diamonds to focus a deadly laser beam on desired targets and to blackmail the world. As we will see, the hypothesis is not all that fanciful.

Although for some time it had assumed a particular military connotation related, in particular, to the mutual verification of the effective reduction of nuclear weapons of Russia and the United States, envisaged by the main strategic agreements, over time space has assumed increasing importance and lately it has become the target of a new race to its conquest, placing the military alongside the civil and scientific sectors. Previously limited to the aspects of remote surveillance and communication, attention is now catalyzed on the potential connected to the availability, in particular, of a precise geolocation system and effective remote discovery and deterrence tools to be placed in orbit.

The same hypersonic weapons, representing another game changer ( in the race for deterrence, without the support of data transmitted via satellite, their role would be greatly reduced. The relatively new environment, as a result, is increasingly taking on the deterrent connotation that was (and in many ways continues to be) characteristic of the atomic weapon during the Cold War.

There is, however, a profound conceptual difference. In the nuclear age, the atomic weapon could not avoid being hit but it was a deterrent because it was able to ensure mutual destruction. The deterrence in the space age would be produced, instead, by the ability of the satellite sensors to identify any hostile actions well in advance, allowing adequate defense and substantial protection from attacks.. This element is therefore destined to contribute significantly to the modification of world political equilibrium, all the more rapidly the more rapid the technological progress that will make available new means and new sensors. In the medium term, new elements will therefore be introduced into the system, which will have to be taken into account. Elements that justify the terminology of "space age" or "new frontier".

The presence of increasingly complex satellites capable of monitoring opponents, of discovering any hostile actions as early as possible (see the launch of hypersonic missiles), of providing information in real time to the men aboard the most modern weapons, of guiding any weapons unmanned, disrupting adversary communications and altering data transmission will inevitably modify the structure, balances, laws and procedures of the traditional international system. A first consequence will be the division of the international community into two categories: the states that have the capacity to operate in and from space and the states that do not, with the former having superior political capabilities, even before military ones. This will also mean a reassessment of alliances, now in a relative identity crisis, making them a typical tool of foreign policy.

In this context, since the military is an instrument of foreign policy, the survival and operability of a combat or deterrence system, including a nuclear weapon, depend on the existence of adequate infrastructures with an advanced capacity to operate in space. . Any country or alliance that today intends to have a credible defense system, autonomous or collective, must therefore be able to count on adequate support from space. This does not mean having nuclear weapons in space, a hypothesis legally excluded by the Treaties and removed from the concrete danger that possible atomic explosions in space could also damage one's own satellite system. It means having advanced means of sighting, detection and control that allow space powers to be increasingly difficult to attack with unsophisticated weapons, increasing the conditions of relative safety.

But the satellites that will have to provide our defense will have to be protected in turn. A defense that cannot be guaranteed by conventional or nuclear weapons positioned on the earth's surface. This is why the so-called "killer satellites" are being studied, destined to destroy the adversary ones, in addition to the "anti-killer satellites", destined to ensure the protection of their satellite system, preferably using laser weapons or atomic particles. However, at the moment nothing excludes that these satellites may not possibly also play a role of threat against the infrastructures of others, missiles launched from the earth's surface or enemy military installations, concretizing in substance what Ian Fleming imaginatively hypothesized.

All this poses, therefore, problems of three-dimensional strategy, given that any future conflict will not take place except with the initial attempt to "blind" the opponent, eliminating or rendering his space systems unusable.

In order to allow the issue to be addressed with due seriousness and competence, the Defense immediately organized itself and, for example, within the Navy General Staff theSpace and Technological Innovation Office, in charge of dealing with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport in the Space sector, with the other branches of Defense and with the civil bodies that deal with the matter. In this way the Navy provides its contribution to the Defense for the "... enhancement of the cybernetic and spatial dimensions, in a vital trinomial with the sea, increasingly central to daily dynamics"3.

The Italian decision to pay more attention to space follows similar choices by the main European countries, Russia (Putin set up a military space force in 2015), the United States (Trump set up the US Space Command in 2019), NATO, with the decision to activate the Space Command and the related Center of Excellence (CoE), and of China, which is being organized.

Space will therefore become an increasingly popular place, where the strategic interests of the major world powers will clash.

The economic prospects

Apart from the technical-organizational and strategic aspects, the economic prospects related to space activity are also of particular interest. The interest of private individuals is, in fact, constantly growing and there is a constant increase in the number of countries, today about fifty, which have started projects for the commercial and scientific exploitation of the new frontier.

This was also favored by technological progress, which led to a significant reduction in costs. The launch of a satellite, for example, cost around $ 200 million until a decade ago, while the total cost is currently around $ 50 million. The introduction of reusable rockets, already in an advanced state of experimentation, promises to further reduce the costs of putting artificial satellites into orbit, even if they will remain non-negligible.

Nevertheless, this type of activity will have elements of significant interest also from an economic point of view. As Limes writes4, “… In 2016 this sector as a whole amounted to 360 billion dollars, a quarter represented by government spending in the various countries and the remainder by private ones. According to Morgan Stanley (2019), the sum of 2040 trillion dollars will be reached in 1,10. Nine countries commit one billion dollars every year and almost 20 have a government expenditure of around 100 million ... ”. Huge figures that give a good idea of ​​the interest attached to the issue.

A direction that many countries are following, such as, for example, France and Germany, which have taken steps to guarantee the earnings, visibility, political returns and substantial international funding related to this activity.

On January 28, 2021, France managed to have the headquarters of the NATO Space Activities Center of Excellence (CoE) located in Toulouse, overtaking Germany, which had proposed Kalkar (North Rhine-Westphalia), where the Joint Air Power Competence Center, a sort of study center whose task is to provide solutions to the challenges concerning the air and space domain.

Berlin, already in the summer of 2020, began to think about its own autonomy, assuming to build a small mobile launch base in the North Sea5 and to put an unspecified satellite into orbit as soon as possible. As Matthias Wacher, president of the German industrial association very candidly pointed out, Germany believes it must put its own "footprint" on the matter as soon as possible, in order to influence more than any competitors on the choices (European, ed.) That will be made. . A move, therefore, which would have a political and not a strategic value since even the positioning of a satellite on polar orbit6 (therefore with very relative utility) would be a way to be able to propose itself as a "launching country" and, consequently, to secure the substantial European and NATO funds destined for these activities. In perfect harmony with Wacher, the coordinator of German aerospace policy, Thomas Jarzombek (CDU), seems to have then provided institutional support to his statements, inserting the initiative of the new launch base among the start-up, in order to facilitate its financing also through the recovery funds. It is safe to bet that, after the aforementioned NATO decision on the CoE in Toulouse, Berlin will proceed more quickly in the implementation of its space projects.

All this activism confirms that the activities related to the positioning of satellites in orbit are stimulating the appetites of the various states because they are a source of significant political, economic and industrial returns.

That said, we have seen that a launch system sea ​​based it offers a huge economic advantage over land-based facilities as the missiles can be launched from an optimal position, considerably increasing the payload and significantly reducing the cost of the operation.

In this context, the recent proposal of the Navy to employ the Carrier Cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi which future launch base presents numerous aspects of novelty and geopolitical and economic interest. The availability of a self-propelled platform suitable for control and launch and able to travel independently and with relatively little expense in international waters (therefore not subject to any authorization by foreign authorities) where more appropriate for the launch of the carrier represents, in fact , an element of substantial change in the Italian and European space game. This, in addition to shuffling the Franco-German cards, could also favor one growing collaboration between private sector and defense, with positive economic, strategic and industrial repercussions for both sectors.

Basically, the use of Garibaldi ship for the putting into orbit of military and commercial satellites would allow to provide an indispensable service to Italy and, with the necessary forms of payment, to the European Union, NATO and users who request their use, precisely because of the peculiarities of the platform and for the possibility of using "cold" launch systems from board (ie with the use of solid fuel carriers, more stable and safe), on which the Navy acquired a significant experience since the 60s, with the experimental launches of the "Polaris" naval ballistic missiles, initially from aboard the missile cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi.

In this context, the Navy sponsored a special project called "SIMONA" (Italian System put into orbit by NAve), as part of the National Military Research Plan (PNRM), for the development of a system for the removal of an orbital carrier, before commanding its ignition, to be used on a naval platform. The undertaking, which will be completed by 2023, will make it possible to preliminarily verify the feasibility of using Garibaldi ship (now at the end of its operational life), as a launching platform for small satellites and therefore represents an important step towards the exploration of innovative solutions to give the country an autonomous capacity to access space, and an element of great interest also for the positive repercussions in terms of progress of the country's industrial capabilities.

Faced with a growing demand for space services, the Italian proposal makes it possible to fill a strategic and economic space currently vacant, and to offer a very valid and less expensive alternative to expensive fixed installations, which will be able to continue to do their job, but to higher economic and political costs.

Even from a legal point of view, things would be simplified, as the eventual responsibility of the launching country would be clear, being unique, and the economic and political returns would not be shared with other actors.

It is such a profitable business that already in 1995 the Sea launch, a multinational consortium consisting of the Norwegian naval engineering group Kvaerner, the Russian company RSC-Energia, the US Boeing Commercial Space and the Ukrainian NPO-Yuzhnoye, offered paid services for the launch of commercial loads (mainly geostationary communications satellites) of interest of international clients.

For launch operations from the Pacific Ocean, the Odyssey (photo), a mobile semi-submersible platform for carrying out oil exploration, converted into a floating space center. A support vessel was also part of the means available to the consortium, the Checkout, which was used as an operations center for launches, for carrying equipment to the platform and for assembling rockets. The company, which competed with the carriers Ariane, had considerable success and the Sea launch worked profitably until 2014 when, due to the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the activity was suspended indefinitely, the assets they were divided among the different ones partners, and began a long international legal diatribe, not yet fully defined.


The XNUMXst century is confirming what Jean-Jaques Servan-Schreiber wrote in his book "Le defì mondial" (1980), with which he anticipated the tendency to evaluate the international relations of the future in economic terms. But the economy is also a function of political strength and military capability.

The problem that is currently at the attention of states is that of acquiring greater political and economic weight through access to the category of "space state". In fact, similar to what happened in the first half of the twentieth century, where it is status of colonial power was an essential condition to be able to carry out an active foreign policy, in the short term the space capacity could become an indispensable requirement to access an effective capacity in the field of foreign policy.

A fundamental geopolitical, economic and strategic game is therefore being played around the space question, in which Italy must participate with all the strength of its proven competence and experience in the field.

For Malindi (photo) Italy is spending enormous sums which, alone, would justify a decisive change of attitude and which could be better used in new projects capable of guaranteeing a greater national return. In the current extremely dynamic and competitive framework, Italy should therefore try to have its skills in the space sector recognized, also by reshaping its relations with France, another important European space player, which is chained to the industrial context related to the launcher. Ariane, to which our country is closely linked with the pitcher Vega. In addition, Kenya is no longer the oasis of peace it was in the 60s. That country has currently become an unstable area, scourged both by Islamic religious extremism and by the effects of Somali events, which see the border between the two countries very permeable by jihadist groups, so much so that even the numerous resort tourism, which in the meantime arose in place of the settlements of the Italian technicians of the 60s, were the subject of bloody attacks.

The Italian space base of Malindi, during the long period of distraction of Italian politics, was substantially abandoned for highly profitable activities such as launches and costly maintained for low profitable uses. Getting it to reacquire its full operational capacity today would cost enormous amounts. In the meantime, we continue to spend more money on its maintenance than we spend on services rendered.

Italy today has the technical-scientific skills, the availability of a ship with strong command and control capabilities, an autonomous platform large enough to be used as a launch base and as a carrier assembly unit (internal hangar) but small enough to be managed with relatively low costs (which, in any case, would be far exceeded by the revenues for the services offered) and the experience to be able to propose itself as a credible "launcher" country.

If we think of all the successful national activities carried out in the course of our history, a very disturbing fact emerges, which illustrates quite well the difficulty facing Italy as a whole. It is that of not being able to exploit the initiatives and interventions made to draw every possible positive impact. Unfortunately, we hardly ever manage to capitalize on the efforts made and the positive results achieved. The Italian "machine" turns a thousand, but collects ten, and not always. A negative national characteristic that we absolutely must try to change.

Italy at the moment is, for example, the main net contributor ofEuropean Space Agency (ESA) as it spends a figure of around three billion a year ... to have no economic or political return. France and Germany, which precede us by a few decimal places as gross contributors, have ensured a significant economic return, as they allow much of what comes out of the door to return through the window (France with the launch base of Kourou, in French Guiana , made available to the activities of ESA, whose headquarters are also in Paris, and Germany with l'European Space Operations Center - ESOC of Darmstadt, which follows and controls the European satellites in orbit). Given the aforementioned recent decision by NATO, it is to be expected that France will soon decide to make the Kourou space base available to the Alliance, with its further gain. We must understand that it is the main contractor which has the main economic and political returns, not the contributor, however extremely generous.

In this context, the space sector will be a source of economic and political growth if the indispensable e technologies are available autonomy to bring the satellites into orbit and, therefore, of their own launch bases, whose services can be offered to partners, maybe even at ESA in combination / parallel with Kourou, and to NATO. It is therefore essential to play as a team and to rapidly propose itself as a "launcher" country capable of satisfying European and NATO needs. Unity is strength. Especially in a country like ours, too often fragmented by narrow individualisms and parochialisms.

Being among the very few countries to have the ability to place satellites in orbit would also attract the attention of those interested in space activity for mere economic interest, such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and all those interested. of space economy and that they increasingly need data to make their economic and world systems work efficiently. To this would also be added the possibilities of employment for the Italian staff involved in the national project, as a career and / or post-career outlet both at the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and at theEuropean Space Research Organisation (ESRO). This would further enhance the national prestige.

But to do this it will be necessary to realistically consider and prioritize interests from the point of view of their concreteness, their materiality, their political, economic and military implications, avoiding limited and "parochial" views, which do not care about the economic repercussions and policies, and marginalizing all the parties who, due to strategic blindness, greed or desire for internal supremacy, would like to concentrate exclusively on the direct dominion of appropriations, on the proper and exclusive use of the material, penalizing the "Italian system" and relegating it to pop on the international scene that is emerging in the space sector.

In this sense, the intelligent and far-sighted initiative of the Navy, with the offer of Nave Garibaldi as a relatively inexpensive, self-propelled, autonomous launch base with a high command and control capacity, it would increase the prestige of our country, contribute to increasing national security and could also become a strategic "vector" of important economic and technological repercussions, which would generate an important export income from services that have now become indispensable and that would bring strategic benefits to the entire Defense sector, but also to the entire high-tech, maritime and communications industrial sector, avoiding significant outlays abroad for the purchase of the same services . This is one of the main challenges we face today, on which Italy's future geopolitical role will most likely depend.

1 Alouettes 1 in 1962

2 The project also included the construction of a series of entirely Italian satellites for scientific activities and the training of Italian personnel for all operational phases, from preparation to launch to in-orbit control.

3 "Guidelines 2020", guidance document issued by the SMM in December 2019.

4 / 122282

5 Sebastian Sprenger, German industry pushes for space launch site in the North Sea, Defencenews on line, 8 October 2020

6 We have seen how launching from high latitudes is extremely expensive in terms of energy, economy and payload for equatorial orbits.

Photo: US DoD / web / DARPA / MoD Fed Russa / Navy / Frank Leuband / presidency of the council of ministers