The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mechanisms like the United Nations and its space-related committees can’t keep up with the growing challenges of spaceflight. (credit: UN)

The international community is not prepared for a future in space

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International politics is undergoing a seismic shift. China is challenging the United States for global leadership, Russia is haphazardly asserting itself through reawakened imperial ambition, and states like India seek to go from regional to world powers. This competition is progressively spreading into space, as governments and their citizens increasingly depend on space for vital services such as telecommunications, navigation, and banking. Space has become foundational to modern society and will be key to future prosperity. As such, states and ambitious corporations are jostling for access to space and pushing outwards to distant celestial bodies like the Moon and Mars.

While the United States and several other nations have pledged not to test such ASATs, and even though the UN passed a non-binding resolution to halt further testing, no binding ASAT non-proliferation agreements exist.

As exciting as this is for humanity’s expansion into the final frontier, there is a growing list of issues. Herein lies the dilemma: a world surging outward into the cosmos with an international community unprepared for competition in space. The idealistic origins of the nascent space era manifested into early policy and international law, like the Outer Space Treaty (OST), but these principles do not bind state actions, nor do they properly factor in geopolitics and realist foreign policy. Although useful as guiding principles, international agreements between states need to evolve beyond the realm of idealism into effective, enforceable governance that accounts for competition and advancements in technology. The challenges to the disconnect are wide-ranging: an increasingly congested space environment exacerbated by debris and the aftereffects from space weapons, sustainability concerns, how to regulate a flourishing commercial sector, gaps in international law surrounding extraterrestrial resource extraction, and the lack of deconfliction and cooperation mechanisms.

Congestion and debris

The first issue to dive into is congestion and the hazards that arise as space becomes easier to access. Launches are becoming increasingly inexpensive and concerns about congestion are growing. Over the last 20 years, the number of satellites in orbit increased exponentially, from roughly 800 in 2003 to more than 11,000 in 2023. As more states and companies around the world emerge and further develop the public and private space sectors, inefficient means to coordinate and deconflict, such as to prevent collisions, will become more apparent.

Chief among the issues to tackle is space junk: human-made objects in orbit no longer in use, such as defunct satellites, rocket parts, and smaller forms of debris. Obsolete satellites can take decades to fall from orbit back to Earth. Notorious instances of this were the uncontrolled reentries of Skylab in 1979 and Tiangong-1 in 2018. In all instances, debris raining over inhabited areas raised concerns about how falling debris could endanger citizens. To make matters worse, satellites are becoming smaller and more numerous to ensure resilience against threats, such as cyberattacks. The rise of cubesats and megaconstellations, in which a network of satellites can range from hundreds to thousands, further complicates the issue.

Some private sector and government initiatives aiming to address the space junk issue are under development, but no coherent international policy solutions are in place. Fortunately, sustainability-focused international organizations like the World Economic Forum are urging cooperation to tackle space junk and promote sensible solutions. The Forum’s recommendations include financial incentives for sustainable practices, orbital data agreements to enable shared tracking of objects, and removing satellites from low Earth orbit (LEO) after they end their missions. Although 27 companies are signatories to these recommendations, some of the largest companies in the business are not. These include SpaceX and Amazon, who are currently developing and operating some of the largest megaconstellations. It is the responsibility of the international community to wrangle in not only states but also the private sector, by formalizing sustainability practices into law and agreeing to a robust international data sharing and coordination regime for space launch and monitoring.

Complicating the congestion and debris issues is the testing and deployment of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. ASAT tests, such as those conducted by the United States, Russia, China, and India, have repeatedly demonstrated the tremendous danger these weapons represent because of their potential to create disastrous debris conditions in LEO. The notorious Chinese test in 2007, in which a land-based kinetic ASAT destroyed an aging satellite, producing thousands of pieces of debris, 3,000 of which were golf ball sized or bigger. Famously, the test forced the International Space Station to dodge incoming debris, a feat it repeated twice more in 2021 to avoid debris generated from a Russian test. India also somewhat successfully tested its own ASAT capabilities in 2019, joining the US, Russia, and China as ASAT-capable states.

The failure of the international community to answer key regulatory questions before space resource exploitation begins in earnest will result in an industry prone to tension and lawlessness.

The desire of states to develop ASAT capabilities is unsurprising, but the lasting impact of such tests creates enduring problems for anyone operating in space. Debris in orbit less than 600 kilometers can take several years to reenter the atmosphere and burn up, while debris above 1,000 kilometers can take more than a century. Moreover, the near impossibility of defending against kinetic ASATs means any use of these weapons has a high likelihood of creating debris that would affect nearly everything in orbit. While the United States and several other nations have pledged not to test such ASATs, and even though the UN passed a non-binding resolution to halt further testing, no binding ASAT non-proliferation agreements exist. Advancements in weapons technology and the absence of arms control has created a volatile environment in which there are no winners in the event of military conflict.

Space economy

The ability of corporations to turn a profit in space is maturing the space economy at a fantastic rate. For instance, in 2021 the space economy was valued at nearly half a trillion dollars. While the primary beneficiary of space development thus far has been the telecommunications sector, advancements in technology and lower costs will lead to a future where resource extraction from large celestial bodies, such as the Moon, near Earth asteroids, and Mars, is not only feasible but lucrative. The mining of an asteroid may be decades or centuries away, but states and corporations are already examining the practicality of such ventures. For example, startup AstroForge plans to send two exploratory missions to an asteroid in late 2023 to test in-orbit refining of platinum. China and the United States have similarly expressed interest in mining rare minerals on celestial bodies, starting with the Moon.

The failure of the international community to answer key regulatory questions before space resource exploitation begins in earnest will result in an industry prone to tension and lawlessness. There are no clear precedents for a corporation laying claim to a celestial body or what labor or safety laws would apply. The OST only asserts that states cannot claim celestial bodies through “national appropriation” but provides little guidance on resource extraction. The mining of strategic resources—iridium on asteroids, for example, or titanium and aluminum deposits on Mars—would be further complicated by state sponsorship and defense of those operations. The lack of international law for the emerging space economy will result in disputes, and the growing militarization of space threatens to create an environment of lawlessness and possible armed conflict.

Existing frameworks and their faults

So, what frameworks exist governing the actions by states and private actors in space? Perhaps the most foundational to international law in space is the previously mentioned 1967 Outer Space Treaty. At its core, this UN treaty declares that all states have the right to space, that individual states cannot make claims on space, that celestial bodies are to be used only for peaceful purposes, that weapons of mass destruction are not to be placed upon them, and that states must be responsible for their actions.

The OST was intended to set the rules of the road for the behavior of states but lacks any enforcement mechanisms. More modern agreements have arisen at the multilateral level, largely because of the emerging space race between the United States and China. The United States, for example, has established the Artemis Accords as it seeks to return to the Moon and land on Mars. The Accords are a series of agreements between the US and its allies that reaffirm the key tenets of peaceful civil cooperation in space exploration, as well as more technical details like the interoperability of spacecraft, registration of space objects, and mitigation and disposal of debris. However, as of today the Accords only have 28 signatory nations, most of which are close allies or partners of the United States.

China and Russia are unsurprising absentees to the Accords, as they instead seek to establish their own leadership and rules in space. This attitude is best demonstrated by the signing of a rival Sino-Russian lunar agreement to rival NASA’s return to the Moon. Also absent from the Accords are any private corporations, which underlines the problem of figuring out how to promoting responsible behavior for non-state actors. Even though foundational international agreements like the OST exist, and momentum builds behind more comprehensive multilateral solutions, the idealistic international laws in place to promote space for peaceful purposes and for the betterment of mankind are insufficient for a future in which intense competition is inevitable.

Creating solutions

So, what can be done to address these existing and emerging issues? Fortunately, the international community can utilize some existing models and agreements and develop solutions. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) could serve as a model for space-specific international law. There are several similarities between international waters and space, such as freedom of navigation, safety precautions for vessels, and resource extraction. The international community could merge principles from UNCLOS with those of the OST, to build upon themes and issues already present in each. Regarding space weapons, states should follow the Biden Administration’s lead and ban any tests of kinetic ASATs. An even stronger move would be to add ASATs to the list of banned weapons under the Geneva Convention, to prevent their use in armed conflicts.

By creating something akin to an International Space Development Agency—similar to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—the United States could promote internationally accepted rules of behavior by requiring their adoption as prerequisites for space-specific development loans.

Unfortunately, the current political climate at the UN Security Council seems unlikely to produce any binding resolutions, and multilateral and bilateral treaties are the international community’s best chance for immediate action. The United States should continue to pursue a multilateral approach outside the UN through agreements like the Artemis Accords. Nevertheless, the United States and China must pursue cooperation on certain issues, particularly sustainability and deconfliction, to foster a safe space environment for the future and avoid unnecessary conflict.

Simultaneously, establishing widely accepted norms of responsible behavior, such as those articulated in a 2020 UN Resolution, are paramount to a safe and prosperous future in space. The United States and its allies have a unique opportunity to encourage emerging spacefaring states to implement such practices by offering economic assistance. By creating something akin to an International Space Development Agency—similar to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—the United States could promote internationally accepted rules of behavior by requiring their adoption as prerequisites for space-specific development loans. Similar to how a government must agree to the economic terms and conditions for a loan from the IMF, the same principle would apply to states seeking assistance in standing up or advancing their space program. In the long term, emerging space programs and space economies would be rooted in sustainable and responsible practices. Advanced states working together with emerging states on a common and shared set of widely accepted beliefs would produce countless long-term benefits for our shared future in space.

The issues this essay identifies are by no means an exhaustive list of the challenges facing the world as we adventure out into the solar system. And yes, even though the current political climate may be inhospitable for international agreements, actions can be taken. Campaigning for more signatories to multilateral and bilateral agreements is one familiar tactic, but more creative solutions may also exist such as the creation of an International Space Development Agency. States and private corporations are racing to develop and advance their space programs and space economies, and as we become ever more reliant on space for our daily lives, the final frontier will be foundational to the modern state of the future. That is why the international community must lay the groundwork now by developing a political environment rooted in cooperation and dedicated to peace, sustainability, and responsible behavior because to be frank, the consequences of inaction would be disastrous for everyone.

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