The United Nations Could Finally Create New Rules for Space

There’s far more international consensus for creating nonbinding norms involving behavior in space rather than stricter policies targeting specific technologies, says Samson. She says she’s “cautiously excited” that the UN is finally escaping its impasse on space diplomacy.

Dozens of countries have already published responses to the UN proposal, mostly in support of it. Nongovernmental groups, including Samson’s Secure World Foundation, arms control groups, and even the International Committee of the Red Cross, have done so as well. The latter points out that “the use of weapons in outer space … could have significant impacts on civilians on Earth.” If, say, a satellite that people depend on for weather information, communications, or navigation were disabled during some international dispute, it could have far-reaching consequences.

That’s a particular problem with “dual-use” technologies, Samson says, referring to spacecraft that can be used for military and civilian purposes. For example, while some military communications involve dedicated military satellites, 80 percent of those communications use a variety of commercial satellites, which could nevertheless be considered military targets. (The space industry was not invited to directly comment, since individual companies are regulated by their national, not international, policies. Representatives from the American space industry often participate in the US delegation.)

The dangers of space debris, which could be generated by an orbital collision or attack, continue to draw attention, especially considering the amount of debris produced by anti-satellite missile tests, such as those by China in 2007 and India in 2019. Even tiny bits of untrackable space flotsam can be harmful, because they’re moving at high speed. Bruce McClintock, lead of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corporation, a federally financed and military-focused research center based in Santa Monica, California, notes that, on Earth, tornado winds can jam pieces of straw into telephone poles. “Now imagine you’re at orbital speeds, and you have something the size of a paint chip moving at thousands of miles an hour. Those are things that can cause serious damage to satellites,” he says.

That’s a major reason why Aaron Boley, a planetary scientist and cofounder of the Outer Space Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, calls for banning tests of weapons that can destroy satellites. “Having a ban on debris-generating anti-satellite tests is an area where I think there could be wide agreement,” he says. His institute published an open letter on September 2 making the case for such a ban, with signatories from multiple countries. A ban on tests that generate “long-lived debris”—shrapnel that stays in orbit for years instead of falling and burning in the lower atmosphere—might have a more realistic chance of being adopted, McClintock argues, though he’s sympathetic to the argument in the Outer Space Institute’s letter.

To avoid collisions or attacks between satellites, which would also likely produce debris, experts frequently cite the Incidents at Sea agreement between the US and the former Soviet Union, which was signed in 1972. The accord mandated more communications between the two countries and required ships, including those engaging in surveillance, to remain clear of each other to avoid collisions. “It didn’t change the size and structure of naval forces, but brought in rules for notifications for exercises,” says Jessica West, a senior researcher at the research institute Project Ploughshares based in Waterloo, Ontario. Giving satellite owners prior warning and requesting consent to approach would go a long way, “so that they don’t freak out, and they don’t worry, and they don’t respond to what you’re doing in an escalatory way because your intention is simply to do an exercise,” she says.

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