Sustainability in space
Space is becoming more contested, congested, competitive, and contaminated. How to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities, so present and future generations can use and explore it indefinitely?
When the space era started in the late 1950s, only the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, were active and sustainability was not on the agenda; it was all about being first: a true ‘space race’. During that time, the Outer Space Treaty and several additional treaties were negotiated and adopted by consensus in a newly established UN permanent committee, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, UNCOPUOS. At that time, the Committee had around 20 Member States.
Today, this number has grown to around 100. In addition to the traditional space powers, newly aspiring space nations from around the globe have joined. Reaching consensus on binding law has become a ‘mission impossible’, and the last treaty, adopted in 1979, is often considered a failure because only 18 States have ratified it. An entirely new category of space actors has emerged as well, namely non-state actors such as large industries, start-ups, and even universities.
The variety of space activities has also grown. Today, the application of space technology for communications, earth observation, and navigation are vital for our society and our economy. We cannot function without space, and space truly benefits humankind, as mandated by the Outer Space Treaty.
In terms of economic benefits, a recent report estimated the 2020 global space economy at 385 billion USD. This includes government investments as well as commercial space and sets a record – despite the pandemic. Actually, the COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of how space can contribute to solving societal challenges. All space applications mentioned earlier – communications, navigation, and earth observation – play an essential role in combating COVID-19. Think of identification, management, and mitigation, and of response and recovery. Without the use of satellites all this would be much harder. Space is indeed a major contributor to the realization of practically all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, whether related to health, education, clean water, or climate.
But the increase in actors and activities has also led to an increasing number of problem areas. Our heavy reliance on space as a critical infrastructure means that space is becoming more and more ‘congested, contested and competitive’. In addition, space is highly strategic, and although so far space has been kept free from weapons, military use has been a fact since the early days. Since there are no explicit rules in international space law that oblige States to clean up their defunct and fragmented satellites, the amount of space debris is steadily increasing, and so is the risk of harmful interference and collisions.
The company SpaceX of Elon Musk has been launching hundreds of tiny satellites into low earth orbit for a couple of years now, to build a large constellation named Starlink. The aim is to provide broadband internet to all areas on the globe, which could be seen as beneficial for society. Ultimately, the plan is to have more than 40,000 Starlink satellites in orbit. To put this into context: there are currently about 6,000 satellites in space, 3,000 of which are still functioning. Projects like Starlink will result in a huge increase in space debris and collision risk. Moreover, they can have a detrimental effect on science. Astronomers are concerned by the light pollution they cause, affecting the so-called ‘dark and quiet skies’.
This shows that the increase in actors and activities also leads to conflicting interests, and this will have to be addressed by the authorities that authorise and supervise private commercial space activities. Indeed, the assessment of the environmental impact of a space activity is gradually becoming part and parcel of these authorisation processes.
By the latest estimation, there are currently some 130 million objects smaller than 1 cm in diameter in orbit. And those are the tricky ones, because they cannot be tracked. Because of the absence of binding international law in this field, there is a need to mitigate the impact of space debris by other measures. Over the years, various sets of guidelines have been adopted by the UN and space agencies. These are often implemented in national law so that they also bind private actors. They provide for instance that States must avoid intentional breakups.
It is also important to start actively removing objects from orbit. Technology solutions such as nets or harpoons are in the making, and further legal issues will need to be addressed. For example, prior approval from the owner of the debris will have to be sought, there may be a risk of damage to a third object, or national security issues could be at stake in case of abuse. It is also important to know what objects are where; this is called Space Situational Awareness and is carried out by various agencies. And Space Traffic Management rules will be needed, so-called ‘rules of the road’ for objects in orbit.
Creating less new debris, cleaning up existing debris, situational awareness, and space traffic management can all be placed in the broader context of the long-term sustainability of space activities. The international community is becoming increasingly aware that it is important to safeguard our ability to conduct space activities indefinitely into the future. We must make sure that we can meet the needs of the present generations, while preserving the space environment for future generations. Only then can we achieve the stated objective of equitable access to the benefits of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.
This topic of the long-term sustainability of space activities was placed on the agenda of UNCOPUOS more than a decade ago. The debates were very complex and highly politicised, but in the end, 21 UN guidelines were agreed and adopted in 2019. States are now invited to abide by and implement these voluntary guidelines. Time will tell whether the international community will put its money where its mouth is, but I am hopeful that our awareness about the need for good stewardship will have a positive effect on our behaviour.
The International Institute of Air and Space Law is actively involved in these discussions, both at national and international level. A study was recently conducted for the Dutch Radiocommunications Agency (Agentschap Telecom) about whether the national legal framework for space activities needs to be adapted in view of the UN long-term sustainability guidelines, and the Institute is part of a large industry consortium for an EU H2020 project on Space Traffic Management, that kicked off this month.
This blog is a summary transcript of the 2021 Meijers lecture.