There has never been so much going on in space as it is today. Commercial activity has exploded in the last five years: private space companies have launched rockets, put satellites into orbit, and submitted offers for lunar missions.
However, some experts are concerned that this boom is too far ahead of international agreements on who can do what in space. Most of these contracts were drafted and passed long before the commercial space industry began. Now countries are realizing that they need to update these agreements.
At the end of September, the United Nations Disarmament Research Institute held its annual event in Geneva Space Security Conference. For two days, diplomats, researchers and the military from all over the world discussed threats and challenges, arms control and space security virtually and in person. The conversations offered an insight into a possible new space policy.
An arms race is looming
Some experts are concerned that space could become the next battlefield. The use of space defense technologies has increased. So have about Russia and China anti-satellite missile tests recently conducted, and the US has long had similar capabilities. “I claim we are witnessing an arms race,” says Benjamin Silverstein, who is a research analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank space project. “We are probably past the point at which it would have been wise to direct our main efforts towards preventing this arms race.”
According to Silverstein, the new policy should focus on mitigating the negative effects of this arms race rather than deterring it. He urged states to use the United Nations and its diplomatic resources to clarify and improve relations between rival actors.
Haiyang Lai, deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, also pointed out that future conflicts in space could threaten the security of more than just the countries involved. He cited the establishment of the US Space Force as evidence that at least one country has already publicly declared space the next theater of war. “We strongly believe that a war in space cannot be won and it cannot be waged,” he said.
Contracts need to be updated
This year 111 more nations have the 1967 Space Treaty signed, banning military activities on celestial bodies. It was the first international document advocating the preservation of the peaceful uses of space and was created at a time when the threat of nuclear war dominated the public consciousness.
Today, space trade relies heavily on the law of due consideration, that is, the principle that states should respect and consider the interests of other states. With commercial and non-governmental corporations proliferating in space, some nations agree that it is time to change the rules.
“Space is getting more and more crowded,” says Abimbola Alale. This can lead to more conflicts and collisions, according to the managing director of Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited. Although states are currently responsible for their own national space activities as well as private space companies operating within their borders, the panelists agreed that, unlike the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, any future treaty must take into account the rights and obligations of non-state actors.
The right technology can help
Experts believe it is possible to use technology to regulate space travel and defense. To do this, however, a better “space situation awareness” must be developed. The term refers to tracking objects in orbit and predicting where they will be at any given time. Although there are some limitations, many government and private actors already rely on location systems to operate safely in space.
Technologies like telescopes have improved a lot over the past decade and, when combined with more powerful computers, now provide a clearer picture of space activity. However, as several panelists pointed out, the future of space security depends in part on how well this and other advances can help countries and companies understand each other’s plans and motives.
However, Silverstein also emphasized that we should first try to resolve our differences on the ground before we come to agreements that could solve our challenges in space. “Space systems are inextricably linked to everything we do on Earth,” says the Carnegie research analyst. “We can’t really say that we can settle an arms race in space without dealing with things on earth.”
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