As much as we all want to see the tenets of the Outer Space Treaty, the Artemis Accords, and all other multilateral frameworks for peaceful cooperation in space hold up, geopolitical pressures here on Earth are already threatening the status quo. Then too, as the race to commercialize space intensifies, new menaces including debris and congestion, are certain to make space a more dangerous place. The question is: are we doing enough to circumvent the worst-case scenarios?
According to a report from the Space Foundation, at the end of 2021, the global space economy was valued at a whopping US$469 billion with more than 90 countries participating. Not only are there more than 5,000 active satellites orbiting Earth (see sidebar UNOOSA’s Official Count) at this very moment, but another 50,000 to 100,000 are also expected to launch in the next ten years. Then too there are the International Space Station (ISS) and China’s Tiangong Space Station with several other space stations on the drawing board including Starlab, Orbital Reef, and both the US and Russian replacements for the current ISS. On top of that are numerous orbiters, 3 Mars rovers, 1 Mars lander, and a number of additional landers and rovers that are set to launch to the Moon and Mars within the next few years. Finally, there are the orbiting observatories—James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Spitzer Space Telescope. The list goes on with much more to come.
Looking beyond all this sophisticated, highly useful, and expensive hardware are the celestial bodies themselves. The Moon has many rare earth metals (REMs) as well as a large supply of Helium-3. The total value of all the Moon’s resources has been estimated to be in the quadrillions of dollars. Asteroids may also prove to be worth mining. In 2021 scientists published a paper claiming that two metal-rich near-Earth asteroids called 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 contain US$11.65 trillion worth of precious metals. What’s more, the asteroid known as 16 Psyche is thought to hold minerals worth US$90,000 quadrillion. Of course, this is speculation, but when such value is attached to orbs that are within our reach, it’s easy to envision a cosmic gold rush.
Wherever there are valuable assets, the potential for conflict exists and space is no exception.
The space race itself started off as a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and was fueled by political propaganda and the threat of nuclear war. Although the US, Russia, and China publicly advocate for the peaceful use of outer space, the tensions that exist on Earth have given rise to an increasingly militarized agenda in space by all three countries. Many other nations are gearing up as well. The European Union, France, Germany, India, Japan, NATO, and the United Kingdom, have all announced the formation of space forces and the intent to protect their space assets.
In April of this year, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released “Challenges to Security in Space 2022” which analyzes current threats to US space-based capabilities posed by Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. According to DIA, “the combined in-orbit space fleets of China and Russia grew more than 70 percent in just over two years, evidence of both nations’ intent to undercut US and allied global leadership in the space domain.”
The report goes on to suggest that both China and Russia “view space as a requirement for winning modern wars, especially against Western nations, and look to prove themselves as world leaders in space by establishing global norms of space behavior. They will persist in seeking ways to exploit the perceived US reliance on space-based systems and integrate their space and counterspace programs into their respective militaries.”
One of the biggest fears articulated in the report is the potential for jamming communications and navigation services, especially during a conflict. Ground-based directed energy systems such as jammers and lasers can be used to disable satellite communications, blind observation, and even destroy the satellites themselves. Military strategists have warned of the deployment of such systems by Russia and China. However, General Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations told Congress last year that the US is developing directed-energy systems as well. “We have to be able to protect these capabilities that we rely so heavily on,” Raymond explained.
Recently released research on Chinese and Russian perceptions of and responses to US military activities in the space domain from the RAND Corporation confirms that all sides are pointing fingers. According to RAND’s report, China and Russia perceive US military activities related to space as threatening and demonstrative of hostile intent. The report also states that “Washington, Beijing, and Moscow appear to be caught in an action-reaction cycle that perpetuates justifications for continued military actions in space based on previous adversary activities.”
So far, so good
Even though the rhetoric on all sides is chillingly reminiscent of the Cold War era, peace in space has been maintained since the signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 which dictates not only that space shall be freely explored and peacefully used by all nations but also that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit everyone. Among the key provisions of the treaty are no nuclear weapons, no military bases, and no conducting military maneuvers on celestial bodies. The treaty also declares that States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities; States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
As of February 2022, 112 countries are now party to the Outer Space Treaty, including China, Russia, and North Korea (Iran has signed, but not ratified). Since the treaty first went into effect the UN brokered four additional treaties: the Rescue Agreement of 1968; the Space Liability Convention of 1972; the Registration Convention of 1976; and the Moon Treaty of 1979. Although the Moon Treaty is signed by only 18 countries, the others have been ratified by most of the space-faring nations.
Current legal loopholes
The Outer Space Treaty and the other four UN space-related treaties serve as the basis for international space law. Unfortunately, space law experts agree that the noble goals articulated in the treaties do not adequately cover the needs of today. For example, none of them ban all military activities in space, the establishment of military space forces, or the positioning of conventional weapons.
They do not spell out the rules for mining the Moon or asteroids either. In an essay written in 2018, Frans van der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln notes that there are two general interpretations regarding the exploitation of those natural resources. “Countries such as the US and Luxembourg agree that the Moon and asteroids are ‘global commons’, which means that each country allows its private entrepreneurs, as long as duly licensed and in compliance with other relevant rules of space law, to go out there and extract what they can, to try and make money with it.
“On the other hand, countries such as Russia and somewhat less explicitly Brazil and Belgium hold that the Moon and asteroids belong to humanity as a whole. And therefore, the potential benefits from commercial exploitation should somehow accrue for humanity as a whole—or at least should be subjected to a presumably rigorous international regime to guarantee humanity-wide benefits.”
Two other potential threats that have yet to be adequately addressed by international rules and regulations are congestion and space debris.
Trash and traffic
The US Department of Defense (DoD) maintains a catalog of all the objects that are in Earth orbit. NASA and the DoD share the responsibility of characterizing the satellite environment and DoD’s Space Surveillance Network tracks objects in LEO that are as small as five centimeters in diameter and about one meter in geosynchronous orbit. According to NASA, “there are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble (up to 1 centimeter) or larger, and approximately 100 million pieces of debris about one millimeter and larger. There is more even smaller micrometer-sized debris…and a tiny paint fleck can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities.”
Although every space agency on Earth is acutely aware of the growing problems with space debris and congestion, mitigation efforts have been largely voluntary. For example, the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) has longstanding guidelines (but not enforceable laws) in place. These include limiting debris released during normal operations; minimizing the potential for break-ups during operational phases; limiting the probability of accidental collision in orbit; avoidance of intentional destruction and other harmful activities; minimizing of potential for post-mission break-ups resulting from stored energy; limiting the long-term presence of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages in LEO after the end of their mission; and limiting the long-term interference of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages with the GEO region after the end of their mission.
On September 30, 2022, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a rule (the first one yet) requiring non-geostationary satellite operators to deorbit their satellites after the end of their operations to minimize the risk of collisions that would create debris. The regulations call for non-functioning satellites to be removed from LEO orbit within five years. In addition, a bipartisan group of senior US Senators has proposed the first-ever legislation to reduce the amount of space debris in orbit. If enacted, the Orbital Sustainability Act (ORBITS) would empower NASA to work with the US space industry to demonstrate debris removal technology (See sidebar: Provisions of the ORBITS Act). Although these efforts are major steps in the right direction, all space-faring nations will need to act similarly to prevent the dreaded Kessler Effect (see Sidebar: The Kessler Effect) which would stultify space exploration and gut the space economy.
The United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats held its second session in September of this year. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia were among the participants. All three nations declared their commitment to preventing an arms race in outer space.
Mallory Stewart, US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance advocated for the adoption of a resolution calling upon all countries to commit not to conduct destructive ASAT missile tests, as the US publicly vowed to do in April. Stewart noted, “The United States believes that this draft resolution on destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests would enhance international peace and security and is a first step toward preventing conflict from occurring in outer space.”
The UK’s Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, H.E. Mr. Aidan Liddle, pointed out, “Our challenge is to consider how the behaviors—activities, actions, and omissions—of States that are developing, deploying, testing, or using these capabilities, give rise to threats to space systems.
“Moreover, we must also consider the risks of misunderstandings. In the intensely competitive environment that I have described, operators of space systems and assets will naturally be wary about the behaviors of another State where these are not transparent, predictable, or well-understood. Where intent is misunderstood, the perception of a threat can arise, in turn creating risks of miscalculation, potentially leading to unintended conflict.”
The statement by the Head of the Russian Delegation, K.V. Voronstov reaffirmed the Russian Federation’s advocacy for the preservation of outer space exclusively for peaceful purposes and stressed that the Russian-Chinese draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space underscored Russia’s position. He also took the opportunity to chastise the US and its allies for using civilian infrastructure in outer space for military purposes during the invasion of Ukraine. He stated, “Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation. Actions of the Western countries needlessly put at risk the sustainability of peaceful space activities.”
Voronstov then warned, “An approval of some fragmented, non-inclusive rules for regulating space activities, that do not take into account approaches of all UN Member States and seek to ensure space dominance of a small group of States rather than address the key goal of the prevention of an arms race in outer space, would not help to maintain international peace and security and would escalate tensions in space, further divide the international community and limit equal access to outer space aimed at its exploration and use for peaceful purposes.”
Essentially, we Earthlings are all in this together and it’s clear that cooperation, transparency, and ultimately legally binding rules that are universally accepted are our only way forward if we are to defend space.