COPUOS meeting
A working group of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer space (COPUOS) finalized nine additional guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space in February. Credit: UN Office of Outer Space Affairs

TORONTO — A United Nations committee reached agreement last week on nine guidelines intended to reduce the risk of collisions in space and other harmful space activities.

The non-binding guidelines, approved by a working group of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), are intended to improve the long-term sustainability of space. They join 12 other guidelines on the topic approved by the committee in 2016.

Speaking at the Canadian SmallSat Symposium here Feb. 13, David Kendall, chairman of COPUOS, said the guidelines came out of a long-running effort by the committee to establish guidelines that, while themselves carrying no legal force, can be incorporated into national laws and regulations.

“The guidelines discussed by the working group recognize the fragility of the space environment and the current and future threats that need to be addressed if we are to ensure that space can be effectively used in the future,” he said.

The nine guidelines approved by the working group cover a range of issues, including improved registration of space objects and sharing of information about them, performing conjunction assessments for all objects that have the ability to control their trajectories, addressing risks associated with the uncontrolled reentry of space objects, and observing precautions when using lasers in outer space.

Kendall, speaking to an audience of smallsat developers and users, specifically pointed out one guideline informally known as the “small satellite guideline” that calls on nations to take measures to “increase the trackability of space objects, including small-size space objects.” That guideline also calls on satellite operators to follow orbital debris mitigation guidelines to limit their long-term presence in “protected regions” of space after the end of their mission.

The guidelines do not carry any legal force in and of themselves, but member nations are encouraged to incorporate them into their laws and regulations, he said. “The bottom line that while these guidelines are voluntary and non-binding, the 87 states that have agreed to them, including Canada, are now obliged to include them as they develop future national space-related legislation,” he said.

The guidelines are the final product of a long-running working group on the long-term sustainability of space established by COPUOS in 2010 and chaired by Peter Martinez of South Africa. That effort, Kendall said, had its ups and downs. “Meetings that exhibited strong collaboration were inevitably followed by periods of complete deadlock,” he said. “Elation on rapid progress was inexorably followed by despondency and frustration when a stalemate occurred.”

The working group had an original four-year mandate, but while it achieved no consensus on guidelines at the end of the four years, it had made enough progress for COPUOS to extend the group for two years. With 12 guidelines approved at the end of that two-year extension, the committee approved a second two-year extension to 2018.

In addition to the 21 guidelines the working group finalized, it was working on seven more guidelines that it had yet to reach consensus upon. Those draft guidelines included some on topics such as proximity operations and active removal of space objects as well as using space solely for peaceful purposes.

The future of those draft guidelines is unclear as the working group’s activities are coming to an end. “There is currently no appetite to continue the work of that working group,” Kendall said in an interview after his speech. “But there is also a willingness not to forget the work that has been done.”

How to continue that work will be discussed at the next full meeting of COPUOS in June, where the report on the nine new guidelines completed by the working group will be approved to send on to the UN General Assembly. “What we’re hoping is that we will get some clarity on that in June,” he said. “The actual mechanism for doing so is to be determined.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...