As the number of space operations is rapidly growing, the need for a better governance of outer space is becoming obvious for all actors. A lack of governance creates numerous safety issues, threatening the conduct of space activities and the long-term viability of outer space. Better cooperation needs to be established, in particular in space traffic management, debris reduction and recycling, or low and medium orbits occupation. The Paris Peace Forum welcomed a preliminary session for the launch of a multi-actor process towards a declaration for the improvement of space safety, in which all participants debated to identify the mains issues and think of a path forward.
Author: Sciences Po student Emylie Bobbi summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum
Debate title: Improving space safety: The multi-actor option
Date: 13 November 2020
Space is an increasingly crowded area; while actors and goals are diversified, the areas that they use are often the same. Earth observations, telecommunications, scientific exploration, and satellite navigation are among the numerous space activities whose instruments need to be coordinated. Victoria Samson, the session moderator and Washington Office Director for Secure World Foundation, insisted that new international rules and best practices have to be developed to fit these realities, a message supported by Simonetta Di Pippo, the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in her video message at the beginning of the panel. How can different actors cooperate in the context of space safety? Representatives of the public and the commercial sectors shared their insights during the 2020 Paris Peace Forum.
A variety of threats in space
Threats in space are varied. One of the most prominent ones is related to debris in orbit, all panelists agreed. Debris collision with space objects is particularly risky. “Right now, it’s a fairly low probability, extremely high impact event. That probability is only going to increase [due to the decreased costs of launching objects and satellite development],” warned Chris Blackerby, the COO of Astroscale.
As the number of actors in space is increasing, all speakers concurred on the insufficient state of current space situational awareness, i.e., information available on the location of space objects. Samson highlighted the several levels of situational awareness, from spaceflight safety to close approaches. Only the US army’s NORAD is currently capable of mapping all space objects, commented Jean-Yves Le Gall, President of the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). Even worse, Blackerby added: “We have a wide variety of countries and companies tracking objects in space, and they provide different information.” It is therefore difficult for policymakers to make informed decisions. David Bertolotti, Director of Institutional and International Affairs at Eutelsat, agreed on the scarcity of current effective tools and their concentration in a few hands.
Moreover, geopolitical considerations strongly influence space behavior. As states become increasingly aware of space security considerations, counter-space threats expand. “Some assets can interfere with other people’s ability to use space,” Samson informed the audience. Therefore, actions such as causing voluntary electromagnetic interference around another nation’s space objects could create a conflict. Bertolotti added that threats in outer space often are the main focus, but physical and cyber threats on ground infrastructure should not be overlooked since they can endanger operations.
Threats in space need to be mitigated to ensure further development. This can be done firstly by establishing an institutional framework. In particular, Le Gall emphasized France and the European Union’s role in pushing for adequate spatial norms. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) has also been formulating recommendations for the non-proliferation of debris with the 13 main spatial agencies for over two decades. The speaker noted that “the best way not to have debris in space is not to create it.” Nevertheless, this will not suffice; current debris such as defunct satellites must be brought down eventually, and Blackerby’s start-up aims at doing precisely that. Moreover, Blackerby called for partially transforming the design of satellites so that they are easier to retrieve. In this regard, Bertolotti noted that on-orbit maneuvering will be a challenge.
Furthermore, all panelists underlined the cooperation required between sectors. “Because this [space] data will be used by a variety of private operators, it is important to define the needs and to design the tools hand in hand with [the commercial sector],” Bertolotti argued. The public and private sectors indeed share an interest in creating sustainable practices. Le Gall acknowledged that “both public and private actors have understood the necessity to be very careful in space, even without legal obligation.” Steps to integrate the private sector have already been taken, Blackerby commented. For instance, the World Economic Forum proposed a Space Sustainability Rating for the satellite launching process.
Finally, the leading space nations should not dictate the foundations of space activities alone. “Without international cooperation, we will not succeed,” declared Blackerby. The current normative environment is under-subscribed, both concerning space object registration ( UN General Secretariat) and the sustainability of outer space activities (2019 UN Long-term Sustainability Guidelines). Only by widening the scope of active players can all actors benefit from space, as “space should not be dissociated anymore from the new data-driven economy,” Bertolotti stated. On a closing note, Samson declared that “every single person on this planet is a space user because the information and data help everyone,” reminding the audience that space safety is everyone’s concern.
By Emylie Bobbi