NEW YORK — A United Nations official says there is an opportunity over the next 15 months to improve how nations manage space activities to address emerging issues ranging from orbital debris to space resources.
Speaking at the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability here June 13, Guy Ryder, U.N. undersecretary-general for policy, said the organization was making efforts to address space diplomacy ahead of a September 2024 U.N. conference called Summit of the Future that will address broad challenges the world is facing.
“We have a window of opportunity over the next 15 months,” he said, “where we can accelerate space diplomacy and advance the governance issue.”
The U.N. released a policy paper in May on outer space governance, outlining several issues it wants to address. Among them are coordination issues for a rapidly growing population of space objects in general in Earth orbit, and more specifically increasing amounts of debris.
“The most obvious and perhaps the most extraordinary change in recent years has been the sheer number of objects being launched into space,” Ryder said. “The fact that more objects have been launched in the last 10 years than in the previous 50 years combined offers, I think, boundless development opportunities and governance needs.”
Those governance needs revolve around space traffic coordination, with limited progress to address that on a global scale. That puts the safety and sustainability of space at risk, he argued, which is exacerbated by the growth of debris, particularly from anti-satellite tests. Efforts to remove debris show promise, but he said that without international norms regarding such activities, “the use of these technologies can be a source both of tension and of conflict.”
Other issues of concern revolve around the human exploration of the moon and utilization of space resources. He noted that while the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been examining space resource utilization, there is no agreement yet on how countries and companies can use those resources.
Ryder offered no specific proposals to address those issues, but said meetings by COPUOS and other organizations over the next 15 months offered opportunities to develop proposals to address them ahead of the Summit of the Future, where space will be one of many agenda items.
The goal, he said, is to develop a single unified governance framework that covers space traffic coordination, debris and resource management, as well as norms and rules to avoid armed conflict in outer space. However, he said the U.N. would be open to separate frameworks for each issue “if that path looks likelier to achieve results.”
Ryder said efforts to develop governance mechanisms on the high seas, such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of Sea, offered a model for space. “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.”
Part of the coordination efforts leading up to the Summit of the Future will be a conference hosted by Portugal in the spring of 2024. That is intended to help develop proposals to be presented at the summit, said Hugo André Costa, member of the executive board of the Portuguese Space Agency, during another conference panel.
There will be two virtual workshops ahead of the Portuguese conference, one in October on technology issues and a second in March 2024 on policy issues, to solicit ideas from governments, industry and academia. “This is the only way that we can prepare for the future,” he argued.
There have been discussions about whether COPUOS, with more than 100 member nations operating on a consensus model where all nations need to agree, is suited for the current space environment. “It’s slow, it’s frustrating but ultimately it’s a slow, steady process,” said Valda Vikmanis Keller, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Space Affairs, saying the open discussions there remain essential. “It’s the only way forward.”
“We need to continue work that is being done in COPUOS,” said Costa, including “difficult discussions” on these issues. “It’s through the difficult conversations and the difficult discussions that we’re going to have that we can support the work of COPUOS and move forward.”