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Engagement Reframed

June 16, 2022

Engagement Reframed #8: How to avoid anarchy in space

By Robert A. Manning

Key points

  • Human civilization has never been more dependent on outer space for daily life—from the internet and global positioning system to military command and control to automatic teller machines (ATMs) and television; yet, at the same time, human activities dependent on space have never been more at risk.
  • There is a dangerous deficit of governance with regard to human activities in outer space. Technology has leapt ahead of global rules, standards, and norms. Private-sector activity is superseding governments. The United States and other space powers seem to be creating their own facts and rules, a recipe for conflict. And great-power competition, particularly that of the United States, China, and Russia, suggests a prevailing mindset among major powers that prefer a race for dominance in all space sectors over cooperation to manage mutual risks.
  • Many of the greatest risks with respect to space activities are ones of mutual vulnerability among the major advanced space powers (the United States, China, Russia, European Union (EU), India, and Japan). Most urgent is mitigating space debris, but equally important, if not more so, is developing shared norms and rules governing activities in space. Managing these risks, beginning with fostering cooperation on space debris, could present an opportunity to compartmentalize strategic competition and update governance to minimize the risk of dangerous conflict disrupting peaceful activities, both those in space and dependent on space.

What is the opportunity?

The international community has entered a new era in space. The year 2021 marked an inflection point exemplified by: US and Chinese land rovers (and a US helicopter) on Mars; a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) test creating some 15,000 pieces of space debris; space tourism and private-sector activities such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX launches and SpaceX’s Starlink mini-satellites nearly colliding with a Chinese space station; and not least, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) launch of the spectacular Webb telescope into orbit around the sun in cislunar space—the vast area between the Earth and just beyond the Moon’s orbit. The explosive growth of activities in space will accelerate in this decade, making for an increasingly crowded and contested domain.

Currently 4,852 satellites from some eighty nations are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO); roughly half of these are US commercial and government/military satellites. They are essential for everything from nuclear command and control, climate observation to GPS, and the internet, streaming video, and ATMs. Moreover, an already crowded LEO is getting more so. The burgeoning private sector is driving the new space economy enabled by innovation, new technologies like relaunchable orbital space vehicles, and miniaturized satellites, such as the aforementioned mini-satellites. Google and Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone plan to launch some 50,000 Starlink satellites in this decade.

These incidents reflect a troubling anarchy in the cosmos, from a burgeoning Wild West–scramble for space resources to a full-blown militarization of space. The problem is clashing ambitions and a deficit of rules governing behavior in space—a domain like sea, air, and cyber that constitute global commons. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the one foundational accord signed by all major space-faring nations, totaling 111. They agreed to the principles in the OST, which states:

“Exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means and shall be the province of all mankind.”

Unfortunately, the treaty is sadly outdated by technology, politics, and competing major powers’ space ambitions. The United States and China plan to create Moon bases (which will compete for real estate at the Moon’s water-rich north and south poles). Several nations have passed laws appropriating the right of private-sector firms to exploit minerals on asteroids and planets. The treaty offers little guidance on collisions, the growing problem of space debris, or the intrusion or obstruction of a nation’s space assets and lacks any dispute-settlement mechanism. Some additional legal agreements are in effect under the United Nations’ (UN’s) Office for Outer Space: liability for damage caused by space objects; safety and rescue of spacecraft and astronauts; and registration of space activities. In theory, a Moon Treaty exists, but it has not been ratified by the United States, Russia, or China. The International Telecommunications Union regulates radiocommunications and orbital resources (satellites), but some doubt it will have the capacity to manage the exponential growth of space traffic.

NASA has embarked on a gallant effort to update rules for operations in space, the Artemis Accords, signed by 19 US allies and partners, but some major space powers—China, Russia, India, and Germany—have declined to join. The Biden administration has endorsed the Artemis Accords, initiated by the Trump administration, as the preferred vehicle to define rules and norms in Outer Space.

The accords are, in effect, principles that assert dominion over activities that, “. . . may take place on the Moon, Mars, comets and asteroids . . . as well as in the orbit of the Moon or Mars,” and in cislunar space. Most of Artemis’s principles are intended as public goods and would make sense as negotiated global norms. Nevertheless, though NASA has tried to ensure that the Artemis Accords are “in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty,” they assert the right to, in effect, claim real estate in the “global commons,” contrary to the Outer Space Treaty. In that sense, the accords may be viewed as an assertion of US primacy—whether intended or not—potentially hastening the trend toward fragmentation of global governance.

NASA had little choice but to exclude China from the accords—the 2011 Wolf Amendment bans NASA’s cooperation or coordination with any Chinese government–affiliated entities. This law has proved largely counterproductive, neither improving human rights nor constraining China’s space efforts. Instead, alarmed by NASA’s robust collaboration with SpaceX and other commercial partners, China has significantly accelerated investment in its own, largely parallel lunar exploration plans. Russia, though a longstanding partner in the International Space Station (ISS), has refused to sign the agreement, opting instead to partner with China on a Moon base and other space ventures. The divorce between Russia and its space-station partners has drastically accelerated due to sanctions on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.

Why now?

A growing number of emerging space powers, the increasing role of space in major powers’ military calculus, the burgeoning private-sector space economy, and the myriad risks—from space junk to space wars—all point to the urgent need to reach new understandings and create new modes of cooperation.

Prospective conflicts arise in Artemis’s language on the extraction of space resources. The accords state that the extraction of resources from the Moon and other celestial bodies “should be executed in a manner that complies with the Outer Space Treaty” before adding that “signatories affirm that the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.” Owning resources seems to be a dubious proposition given the OST language that says celestial bodies are not subject to “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.” The OST adds that the Moon or asteroids cannot be claimed “by means of use . . . or by any other means.” The accords do include provisions for consultation with non-Artemis parties, but no global-dispute settlement mechanism exists.

The private-sector space economy is exploding. Tens of thousands of asteroids are rich with rare-earth and other minerals, a potential $1 trillion market. Dozens of startups in the United States, EU, and Japan are gearing up for space-mining and removing space debris. China, too, is planning space-mining ventures.

A host of nations, including the United States, have already begun staking legal claims in the cosmos. For example, Luxembourg, seeking to become a European hub for space-mining, has enacted a law granting private firms the right to extract space resources, created a space-mining center, and invested in space-mining startups. The United Arab Emirates has adopted a similar law, as has the United States, with President Barack Obama’s signing of a commercial space law in 2015 granting US businesses the right to extract resources throughout the cosmos. President Donald Trump took this move a step further with a 2020 Executive Order authorizing the commercial development of space resources and explicitly rejecting the notion that space is a “global commons.”

Absent new global rules, the space resource issue is a prime area ripe for conflict between space-faring nations.

These laws assert the right to assign property rights on celestial bodies to space-mining companies—but on what legal basis can nations unilaterally grant property rights to such companies, or, for that matter, build manned stations on the Moon or Mars, given that celestial bodies are not subject to sovereignty claims? Nobody owns the Moon. What would preclude China, India, or the EU from granting the right to mine minerals to their state firms if they got there first, or from claiming prime real estate on the Moon’s water-rich north or south poles for their manned bases? Absent new global rules, the space resource issue is a prime area ripe for conflict between space-faring nations.

Similarly, there are a dearth of rules on how to deal with space debris, or codes of conduct for military satellites vulnerable to disabling or destruction by cyberattacks, stalking by other satellites, and ASAT counterspace weapons. ASAT tests have produced thousands of pieces of space debris that pose an immediate threat.

Russia’s ASAT test in November 2021, which destroyed one of Russia’s own defunct military satellites, creating a cloud of some 1,500 pieces of space debris, illuminates the problem. Even small pieces of debris, traveling at some 17,000 miles per hour, can cause crippling damage to satellites, potentially disrupting the space infrastructure, the nervous system of modern life. Moscow’s test forced astronauts—and its own cosmonauts—on board the ISS to take emergency safety measures for fear of collision.

Russia’s test followed a similarly dangerous Chinese ASAT test in 2007, as well as a US ASAT test (though designed to minimize long-term orbital debris) in 2008. More recently, China protested small shoebox-sized satellites launched by SpaceX’s Starlink project to facilitate global broadband WiFi when one of the satellites almost collided with China’s space station, so close that Beijing protested to the UN last December after having to take evasive action. An explosion of private-sector space business—from satellite launches and space shuttles to the quest for mining asteroids and planets—has blurred the line between civilian and military activities, racing ahead of any duly considered global regulation. President Joe Biden’s recent unilateral ASAT test ban offers a chance to lead by example in fostering new norms.

How to make it happen

Of all the unresolved questions about space activities, the most urgent need—and most promising area for new cooperation—is alleviating the threat from space debris. Nations can cooperate, pooling risks and burdens when they perceive that their interests intersect. The threat of space debris to all nations’ vital economic and national security assets in space would, like climate change, seem to be such an instance. Space junk does not recognize whose space assets it damages or destroys.

In December 2021, the White House issued a document billed as the “US Space Priorities Framework.” One of its principles is that “the US will lead in strengthening global governance of space activities.” There is no better opportunity than on space debris.

The US Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network is the premier mechanism for monitoring space junk. Moreover, in addition to its unrivaled Space Surveillance capacity to monitor debris, the United States has already signed space-sharing agreements with over 100 nations to provide data and notifications to avoid collisions. It has aided China in this regard. These are important global public goods that can provide diplomatic leverage for shaping space rules and standards on space debris.

In addition, private-sector firms and startups in Japan, the United States, and Europe are devising ways to remove space debris in what appears to be a coming sector of the space economy. The US Space Force’s technology arm is already exploring the possibility of funding private firms to remove space debris. Methods of space-junk removal include satellite magnets, nets, harpoons, and even spider-like webs, all being developed by private contractors that are bearing the risks of research and development.

All these steps create possibilities for new cooperation on space junk, great-power competition notwithstanding. The most expeditious course would be an ad hoc multilateral initiative, not a UN institution. There are only a handful of high-performance space-faring states—the United States, Russia, China, the EU countries, Japan, and India.

As discussed above, the United States is well positioned as first among equals to launch an ad hoc public-private coalition of space powers—call it the Space Six—partnering with the private sector to pool resources and (nonnational-security-sensitive) capabilities to better monitor, clean up space debris, and seek mutually acceptable codes of conduct and rules for such activities. If there is agreement among the United States, China, Russia, and the EU, the UN Security Council (UNSC) could pass a UNSC resolution, as was the case in similar ad hoc efforts (e.g., the two-plus-four talks on German reunification and the six-party talks on North Korea). It should be an open architecture, based on the principle of form follows function, and open to emerging space powers such as South Korea, Brazil, Israel, and others.

Over the coming decade, multifarious activities and presence in cislunar space and on the Moon will unfold. If left untended, the probability of conflicts over competing Moon presences, space-mining, and military activities is significant, if not inevitable. Given the magnitude of the space-debris problem—existential for all activities in space—a space debris-focused coalition could catalyze a favorable political climate and might eventually evolve into a forum to address other space-governance issues. Building on the US unilateral ban on ASAT testing, for example, could produce a consensus for a moratorium on ASAT tests among the Space Six and beyond.

Conceptually, the long-term vision should be to negotiate an agreement analogous to the UN Law of the Sea Treaty that defines property rights on the Moon and other celestial bodies, though such would likely be an arduous, protracted undertaking—the Law of the Sea negotiations began in 1973 and ended in 1982, and the treaty still has not been ratified by the United States, Canada, Israel, Turkey, and other states.

Negotiations between the alliance associated with the Artemis Accords on the one hand and China, Russia, and nonaligned space powers like India or Brazil on the other will be a tough road to hoe. Yet the prospect of a lunar version of Wild West–range wars over valuable real estate should give the international community pause. Unregulated resource exploitation on the Moon will probably lead to the competitive deployments of military forces on the Moon’s surface and in the vastness of cislunar space.

To avoid a full-blown military competition, it will be necessary, however difficult, to develop a number of confidence-building, if not arms control measures. One possibility is to internationalize the demanding requirements for situational awareness in cislunar space. This might include the creation of one or more command centers or intelligence cooperation clearinghouses on the Earth and Moon that have access to a multinational fleet of surveillance spacecraft.

Developing an information-sharing clearinghouse to maximize transparency of human activities in and around the Moon would be a good first step. Another area of potential conflict is military activities in space. The United States, China, and Russia would be wise to begin talks to define military activities in space, starting with interactions of their respective military satellites. A code of conduct for such activities, including notifications of movements of satellites along the lines of the Cold War US-USSR Incidents at Sea agreement could be a model.

The ISS has become an emblem of successful science collaboration on space issues, an area of agreement between the respective space agencies of the United States, Russia, EU, Japan, and Canada. Washington recently announced that it will extend the operations of the ISS until 2030; despite the looming divorce from Russia, other partners appear supportive.

China has accelerated its robust space-exploration activities, including a planned Moon base. Diminished Russian space capabilities will most likely be another consequence of the Ukraine war, making Moscow a less appealing space partner to Beijing. There are many aspects of space exploration, to which China is deeply committed, that do not necessarily clash with US interests. After the near-collision of its space station with a Starlink satellite, there were hints of Chinese interest in cooperation to avoid such risks. The Biden administration should invite China to accede to the ISS, and its affiliate, the Tiangong Space Station, to explore possible areas of space cooperation. For that to happen, the United States would need to abolish or amend the 2011 Wolf Amendment banning collaboration between NASA and the Chinese space agency. Given the challenges of space and space governance, some degree of cooperation with China on civil space activities will almost certainly be necessary and need not compromise national security. The United States has an opportunity to catalyze global efforts to manage space technologies and activities before risky confrontations ensue.

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Image: The 45th Space Wing supported NASA’s successful launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 22, 2016. The rocket carrying Cygnus cargo vessel OA-6 is a resupply mission to the International Space Station supporting NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. (Courtesy photo/United Launch Alliance)