It is not uncommon to be faced with a problem but struggle to find a solution. In the case of space sustainability, as low Earth orbit fills with both active satellites and debris, the challenge is as much coming up with a solution to deal with that congestion as it is determining who should do it.
The rapid growth in the number of space objects, caused by the rise of satellite constellations as well as debris-generating events like anti-satellite tests and collisions, is testing the international governance model for space activities developed in the early years of the Space Age that many in the industry believe can no longer keep up.
“More objects have been launched in the last 10 years than in the previous 50 combined,” noted Guy Ryder, undersecretary-general for policy at the United Nations, during a speech at the Summit for Space Sustainability by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) in New York June 13. That creates, he said, “boundless development opportunities and governance needs.”
Space governance has been handled at the international level by the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which now has 102 nations as members. In the 1960s, COPUOS helped guide the development of the Outer Space Treaty, the foundation of international space law, followed by several related agreements.
However, the large size of COPUOS and its use of a consensus-based model — all nations must agree — can make progress slow or nonexistent. Attendees of the most recent COPUOS meeting in Vienna, which concluded in early June, noted that one agenda item known as “dark and quiet skies” to study the effects of satellite constellations on astronomy had widespread support but was dropped because of objections from one nation, Iran, which is opposed to constellations in general on sovereignty grounds.
“It’s slow, it’s frustrating,” said Valda Vikmanis Keller, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Space Affairs, of COPUOS, during one panel at the Summit for Sustainability. But, she said, the discussions there were essential. “It’s the only way forward.”
However, some are looking for alternative mechanisms to address those growing space sustainability concerns. That includes efforts both within the United Nations itself and among other governments and organizations, seeking binding agreements or simply widely adopted norms and guidelines as the population of satellites and debris continues to grow.
Window of opportunity
One such effort is at the United Nations. It is beginning preparations for its Summit of the Future, a two-day meeting in New York in September 2024 where member nations will discuss key global issues. The U.N. calls it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance.”
The agenda of that meeting will include space. “We have a window of opportunity over the next 15 months,” Ryder said, “where we can accelerate space diplomacy and advance the governance issue.”
The U.N. started planning for the Summit of the Future with the release of a policy paper in May on outer space governance. It highlighted as key topics space traffic coordination as well as space resource utilization and concerns about conflict in outer space.
The report doesn’t offer specific solutions, but Ryder said the ultimate goal is to develop “one single united regime to facilitate data sharing, cooperation and continuity” in space traffic management and related issues. Those issues could be addressed individually, though, “if that path looks likelier to achieve results.”
COPUOS will play a role in developing concepts to be considered at the Summit of the Future through its meetings next year, but it will not be the only mechanism. Portugal will host a conference in the spring of 2024 to develop proposals for consideration at the fall summit.
Hugo André Costa, a member of the executive board of the Portuguese Space Agency, said at the SWF summit that the spring meeting will be preceded by two virtual workshops, one this October on technology issues and a second in March 2024 on policy issues. Those meetings will be open to representatives from industry, academia and governments. “This is the only way that we can prepare for the future,” he argued.
Developing a global space government framework in just 15 months is an ambitious task. If it is successful, though, Ryder suggested that the framework that emerges might look different from existing approaches. One model, he said, might be existing treaties like the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. “All of this provides us with the confidence that the kinds of agreements concluded in the past are possible in the future, even in today’s admittedly challenging geopolitical climate.”
“The notion is that we live in a rapidly changing world,” he said, looking for new approaches while maintaining existing mechanisms. “Let’s be honest: what worked yesterday will not necessarily work tomorrow. That is not a recipe or a reason to jettison everything that has worked up until this point.”
“But,” he added, “it can be a very strong reason to adapt, modify, improve what we have.”
Phone a friend
The international community has demonstrated it can move quickly on space sustainability issues. After Russia conducted an ASAT demonstration in November 2021, destroying a defunct Russian satellite and creating thousands of pieces of debris, the United States and others started pushing for mechanisms to halt any future such tests.
U.S. officials said they didn’t expect Russia to perform a destructive direct-ascent (DA) ASAT test. “We were shocked. I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked,” said Audrey Schaffer, director of space policy at the National Security Council, during a talk at the Summit for Space Sustainability. “How could they do something so brazen, so reckless, and so clearly contrary to the safety, sustainability and security of an environment that so many of us depend upon?”
Later at the summit, Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, said that the U.S. military suspected Russia was planning some sort of test. “They consider themselves the senior spacefaring nation,” he said, and thus expected Russia would do an “offset test” that fired a missile to deliberately miss the target. “They want to continue that tradition of being that senior, responsible spacefaring nation. I was wrong.”
The Defense Department, he said, became “one of the earliest and biggest proponents” of what Vice President Kamala Harris announced the following April, that the U.S. would refrain from conducting similar ASAT tests and request other countries to do the same.
That effort resulted in a U.N. General Assembly vote last December, just over a year after the Russian ASAT test, on a resolution regarding such a test ban. A total of 155 nations voted in favor of the resolution, while nine, including China and Russia, voted against it. Nine other nations, including India, abstained.
“That kind of vote count indicates a very strong base of support,” Schaffer said but argued it was not enough. The resolution, she noted, was non-binding, simply encouraging countries to make such commitments. As of June 2023, 13 countries have done so.
“To truly establish an internationally recognized norm banning destructive DAASAT missile testing, we need a critical mass of nations to actually make the commitment,” she said.
That has been a slow process. Only three countries — Austria, Italy and the Netherlands — have formally committed not to conduct destructive ASAT tests since the U.N. vote. That slow progress, some suggested, may be due to domestic politics.
“We understand that other states that voted for the resolution but have not yet joined the commitment need some time to thoroughly review the domestic effects,” said Hyerin Kim, second secretary in the disarmament and non-proliferation division of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. South Korea announced its commitment to refrain from such tests last October. “Korea is also making efforts to raise awareness of the danger posed by ASAT testing.”
“We had a great start out of the gate, but there’s more road ahead of us,” Schaffer said, urging conference attendees representing nations that had not made a commitment to consider doing so. And for those who have, “phone a friend and ask them to make the commitment too.”
Other efforts to address space sustainability are proliferating. At the Summit for Space Sustainability, the World Economic Forum (WEF) announced a new set of guidelines for mitigating the growth of orbital debris. The document is the latest foray into space sustainability for the WEF, which previously led the development of a Space Sustainability Rating.
Among the recommendations published by the WEF is to establish a success rate for “post-mission disposal,” or removal of satellites from orbit after the end of their missions, of 95% to 99%. That disposal, it added, should be done no later than five years after the end of a satellite’s life, versus earlier guidelines of 25 years.
“We wanted to push the envelope a little bit on some of these concrete, specific targets,” said Nikolai Khlystov, lead for the WEF’s Future of Space initiative, at the conference. The document also calls for satellites to be maneuverable, preferably through onboard propulsion, when operating at altitudes above 375 kilometers, and for operators to agree to share orbital data.
The WEF convinced 27 companies to endorse the guidelines, including several major satellite operators. Notably absent, though, were some planning or deploying large constellations, such as Amazon and SpaceX.
Khlystov said the WEF worked with more than the 27 companies who signed the new guidelines. “If some actors didn’t sign on, I don’t think it’s a sign that they are against these standards,” he said. (An Amazon spokesperson later said that while the company helped craft those guidelines, it was not ready yet to endorse them as it assesses various other proposals.)
Just over a week later, the European Space Agency and three European satellite manufacturers — Airbus Defence and Space, OHB and Thales Alenia Space — announced their intent to develop a “Zero Debris Charter” to mitigate the growth of orbital debris. The charter, announced during the Paris Air Show, doesn’t exist yet beyond the most general outlines.
“The principle is a very simple one,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said at the announcement. “The Zero Debris Charter is a principle where we would like to ensure that there is zero debris left behind in space.” He compared it a national park, where visitors are expected not to leave behind any garbage.
The goal is that, under the charter, satellite operators would be expected by 2030 to either deorbit their satellites on their own at the end of their lives or hire a company that offers active debris removal services to do so. ESA and the companies plan to refine the details and complete the text of the charter by the end of the year.
What benefit the charter will have was not exactly clear at the announcement. All three companies participating have already endorsed the WEF’s guidelines, with some executives at the event praising that document for its specific requirements.
Aschbacher suggested the charter could be incorporated into regulations so that governments agree to work only with those companies that agree to follow it. “We need to achieve a status where we demand that only data or information is bought from those satellite providers who are adhering to certain standards,” Aschbacher said. “The charter may be one vehicle for doing so.”
Executives, though, were cautious about a solution to a worldwide problem that applied only to European companies. “It’s important that those regulations are worldwide,” said Hervé Derrey, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space. “If this is not applied to the rest of the world it will have no effect at the end. It will collectively fail. And, on top of that, European industry will not be on a level playing field with its competitors. That would be the worst situation.”
“Only with a real international regulation will we get it under control,” said Lutz Bertling, an OHB board member.
That, then, returns to the United Nations and its often slow efforts. Ryder, at the Summit for Space Sustainability, was careful to praise COPUOS for its work even while suggesting changes are in order. “We have a very solid record of achievement,” he said. “It’s a very solid platform from which to start.”
“It’s very difficult to have 102 different ways of seeing the same thing,” Portugal’s Costa said, describing the long discussions at COPUOS meetings over things like wording of a single sentence in a statement all will accept. “You just need to have nerves of steel to wait until the very last moment when all the agreements are reached.”
As low Earth orbit fills with satellites and debris, that very last moment for space sustainability may be rapidly approaching.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.