For more than 50 years, near space has been viewed as a vast resource to exploit with few limits. In reality, near space is a very scarce resource. While international agreements such as the Outer Space Treaty and the Registration Convention take steps to protect this precious resource, no single global body is responsible for ensuring the long-term sustainability and safety of near space.
The current surge in the exploitation of outer space means that this lack of a global framework for space sustainability must be addressed immediately, or it will be too late; near space will be cluttered and unrecoverable. We are seeing increased use of near space for tourism and other business ventures and the deployment of megaconstellations comprising tens to hundreds of thousands of satellites. And this is just the start. Last month, we witnessed a Russian anti-satellite test that left portions of near space cluttered with orbital debris. Failure to implement a global framework with an enforcement mechanism for space sustainability could severely impact the ability to fully utilize the resource in the near future.
Today near space activities are subject to disparate space sustainability requirements, generally reliant on the requirements of the object’s launching state or conditions imposed by countries in which entities have market access. Some countries have developed well-crafted requirements for at least some space objects, but others have not. In addition, except for the items covered in existing treaties, like launching state liability, there is almost no harmonization on requirements, which further jeopardizes space sustainability.
This lack of a harmonized space sustainability approach leaves us at a dangerous precipice. If we do not establish a global space sustainability regulatory regime soon, it will be too late. Accordingly, governments must act now to establish an appropriate international regulatory regime and an implementing organization charged with creating and managing a global space sustainability framework.
The question then becomes, what is the appropriate structure for a space sustainability international organization? Several experts have been looking at leveraging existing bodies such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) or the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These bodies have some expertise in these areas, however not one of these bodies has all the characteristics necessary for success. Creating a space sustainability organization that is purpose-fit for its mission is far more important than leveraging an existing body that falls short of the task for purposes of expediency. However, it may be wise to work with existing space treaties that have worked well and update them to create a regime for space sustainability.
Requirements of Space Sustainability Organization:
- Clear and Focused Mission: The organization charged with space sustainability must have sustainability as its primary mission. ICAO and the ITU have mandates that, at most, are peripherally related to space sustainability. Accordingly, significant constitutional and organizational challenges would be required (as well as an increased budget and appropriate staffing). While COPUOUS’ mandate is closer to that required by space situational awareness, its broader mandate may complicate its operations. Equally important, changes required to voting and participation would conflict with COPUOUS’ current operations.
- A Forum for Agreement on Sustainability Standards: A vital mission of the sustainability organization must be to serve as a forum for agreement on sustainability standards for issues of disposal, controllability of space objects and the like. These standards must then be implemented by the organization’s member states.
- Structure and Voting Must Reflect Member State International Obligations: The sustainability organization must be structured in a manner that recognizes and leverages the strengths of the existing space treaties, most notably the Registration Convention. It would be appropriate to create a two-tier voting structure in light of the current international regime governing the use of outer space. Specifically, countries designated as launching states under the Registration Convention are likely to be the most directly impacted by a global space situational awareness framework and should have a greater weight afforded to their vote than other member states. ICAO, ITU and COPUOUS conventions and operations would not allow this important criteria. The concept of weighted voting, while not common, has been captured in previous international organizations.
- The Need for Private Sector Participation: As the private sector plays a significant role as both space actors and developers of technology, they must play an advisory role in the decision-making of the sustainability organization. An appropriate way to include industry is to give them the ability to participate as nonvoting members of the organization, much as is done successfully at the ITU. Such inclusion will allow the sustainability organization and its members to benefit from the insights of the private sector.
- Path to Enforcement: Because any failure of member states to abide by the space sustainability global framework would be harmful to near space, enforcement mechanisms must be agreed to by all. While political pressure, as seen at the ITU, is often effective, in the case of space sustainability, enforcement cannot be done after the fact, or we will see a never-ending increase in orbital debris.
A Call to Action
Space sustainability is critical to the world’s future on many levels — whether for economic, communications, public safety, climate, or myriad other reasons. For years, we have taken a conservative approach to address these issues, but the world and technology have changed. Witness the launch of over 1,400 objects — the most ever — in the last nine months alone. We must act today to create a global body that is purpose-fit for addressing the many space sustainability and safety issues we are facing — and will face in the future.
The best way to do this is to create a new body that meets these challenges as soon as possible. With a June 2022 COPUOUS meeting upcoming, I urge my colleagues around the world to begin these important discussions and to work toward updating the appropriate space treaty to create this important framework and organization to advance the safety and sustainability of the near-Earth orbit.
Jennifer A. Manner is senior vice president for regulatory affairs at EchoStar/Hughes. The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Echostar/Hughes.