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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Subverting Colonisation: A Case for Feminist Astropolitics

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Japingka Aboriginal Art / Image Source: Japingka Art Gallery (Link)

The foundations for the exploration of outer space, as articulated under the treaty regime governing outer space, is that it is intended only for peaceful purposes. Space law allows no room to stake claims of sovereignty or territorial cover in outer space, and prioritizes, among other things, the “non-appropriation of outer space by any one country” (UNOOSA, 2019). Even as we speak, however, there is a race to occupy space with satellites – both military and non-military – by corporations and states alike.

2022 witnessed the maximum number of orbital and suborbital satellite launches - with 155 taking place over a matter of a year. According to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, maintained by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there were 8261 satellites orbiting earth in 2022, marking an increase of 11.84% over April 2021. Of these, 4,852 satellites are active (Geospatial World, 2022). According to STATISTA, of the nearly 5,500 satellites listed as active as of 2023, 424 have military uses. The US has the largest number of satellites in space (3,415), and multinational corporations rank fourth in the list of actors sending satellites into outer space (Buchholz, 2023). Military or otherwise, this raging race to occupy space does not align with the goal of non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, and certainly does not align with the principles of peaceful uses of outer space.

A New Frontier for Settler and Exploitation Colonialism

Right from the inception, colonization was a game among the powerful: a policy and practice of acquiring control over, and occupying and exploiting territories (Acemoglu and Robinson 2001). Space exploration became the site of enactment of state hegemony and geopolitics during the Cold War - and has since endured (Smiles, 2020).

With the decolonization wave at the end of the Second World War and after, even as states became independent, they continued to bear the traumatic imprints of colonization in the forms of the continuation of colonial systems, unbalanced power relations, and the heavy impact of the depletion of resources by (now former) colonial powers. The original blueprint of colonialism involved states in power – both in terms of wealth and military prowess – displacing, killing, and looting indigenous and native populations of the spaces they occupied. Outer space is rapidly becoming an arena for this very template of settler and exploitation colonialism (Finnegan, 2022).

The settler state makes use of the land and resources within to continue on the said land by deploying all activities that settler colonial logic deems necessary to its own survival (Wolfe, 2006). These activities are tied to an arrogant and racist assumption that the settler society alone has the ability to make proper use of land and space (Wolfe, 2006). The dispossession of indigenous people underlies nearly all colonial endeavours (Smiles, 2020).

With the mounting number of satellites in low Earth orbit, the immediate consequence has been the crowding of the skies, followed by the rapid accumulation of space debris, light pollution, and the consequent obstruction of access to the skies. Well before mankind made it to outer space in the way that it has, indigenous communities around the planet have relied on the planets, natural satellites, stars, and their movements across the tapestry of the sky for both astronomy and their ways of life (Venkatesan et al., 2020). Fundamental to several indigenous cultures, the human-cosmos nexus lies at the very heart of community practices and ways of living. Indigenous astronomy is a knowledge stream based on other knowledge traditions (Bhathal, 2006), and is evolved as indigenous communities “observed the natural processes and interrelationships of all things over millennia” (Maryboy 2020).

These practices are a vital component of the “rich and complex ways of knowing and ways of being and living in this universe” (Maryboy 2020). In the words of Million (2013), Indigenous astronomical knowledge has evolved “from their lived experience in their distinct places, in spiritual relationships with land and life, and from traditions that change but are millennial.” By occupying outer space through rapid satellite deployments, spacefaring states and multinational corporations have not only obstructed their view and full access to the skies, but have also fully, effectively, colonized outer space.

Subverting Colonisation: Feminist Astropolitics

Outer space forms the common heritage of humankind, and has long been placed out of reach of sovereign control, although only on paper. Drawing from decolonial, intersectional feminist approaches, it is vital to decolonize outer space and state and corporate engagements in these spaces. In the words of Grandin (2019), space became another frontier for the colonial settler to conquer and know: if not for the sake of further settlement, then for the preservation of its existing spatial extent on Earth.

While some call for the inclusion of indigenous voices in spacefaring decisions and policymaking (Finnegan, 2022), it is only likely to solve the problem of exclusion. It is easy for this step to be reduced to checking a box – for adding indigenous and stir won’t shift the needle. It is important for the international community to reflect on the colonial exceptionalism that normalizes exploration, violent occupation and settlement, and exclusion – because this phenomenon manifesting in outer space is not an anomaly. If anything, it is fully an extension of the systemic failings of the world order as it has existed, operated, and functioned. The militarized, colonial, and heteropatriarchal frames within which these explorations operate need to be interrogated and dismantled from bottom-up, and that obligation is a burdensome load of emotional labor that cannot be placed on the shoulders of the excluded alone.

Systemic overhaul must start from introspection within, and a deep sense of accountability to right historic wrongs. The feminist exercise of foregrounding deep, strong, and introspective reflexivity on one's positionality and the impacts of furthering agendas that entrench those positionalities with power is a useful site to start.


Acemoglu, Daron; Robinson, James (December 2001). "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation". American Economic Review. 91 (5): 1369–1401.

Bhathal, R. (2006). Astronomy in Aboriginal culture. Astronomy & Geophysics, 47(5), 5-27.

Buchholz, Katharina (May 4, 2023). The Countries with the Most Satellites in Space.,cooperations%20come%20in%20fourth%20place.

Finnegan, C. (2022). Indigenous Interests in Outer Space: Addressing the Conflict of Increasing Satellite Numbers with Indigenous Astronomy Practices. Laws, 11(2), 26.

Geospatial World (2022). How Many Satellites are Orbiting Around Earth in 2022?.

Grandin, G. (2019) The end of the myth: from the frontier to the border wall in the mind of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Smiles, Deondre (October 26, 2020). The Settler Logics of (Outer) Space.

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. "United Nations Treaties and Principles on Space Law". Retrieved 23 February 2019.

Venkatesan, A., Lowenthal, J., Prem, P., & Vidaurri, M. (2020). The impact of satellite constellations on space as an ancestral global commons. Nature Astronomy, 4(11), 1043-1048.

Wolfe, P. (2006) "Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native." Journal of Genocide Research 8(4), 387-409.

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