Governance is space industry’s key issue for 2024

Governance is space industry’s key issue for 2024

The Starship is important for NASA and the US space program as it is scheduled to take astronauts to the moon in 2026. (AFP)

Last week’s UN-Portugal policy symposium on the “Management and Sustainability of Outer Space Activities” coincided with SpaceX’s successful launch of its Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built. The Starship is important for NASA and the American space program because it is scheduled to take astronauts to the moon in 2026 — the first time humans will have landed on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission of 1972.
The conference, hosted jointly by the Portuguese Space Agency and UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, also came a few weeks after the landing of the first private sector lunar lander on the moon, the Odysseus. This opened a new chapter in space exploration but also raised important questions about the future of the space economy and of space governance and sustainability.
The joint UN-Portugal conference relied on the UN secretary-general’s Policy Brief 7: “For All Humanity — The Future of Outer Space Governance.” It aimed to “provide contributions” in preparation for the Summit of the Future, which the UN will host in September. The UN and Portugal will also hold another preparatory space conference on May 15 in Lisbon to prepare for the September summit.
Aarti Holla-Maini, the executive director of the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs, called the secretary-general’s policy brief “our North Star” because “it reminds us of the urgent need for a global inclusive and cooperative governance safeguarding outer space as a common good for humanity.”
The secretary-general’s policy brief on space recommends the development of “a unified regime for space sustainability” to “foster transparency, confidence-building and, importantly, the effective interoperability of space operations in Earth orbit and beyond.” A second option the policy brief recommends is that the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space “consider developing new governance frameworks for various areas of space sustainability.”
If there is a single message to take away from the conference, it is that of the urgency of addressing the challenges in outer space and formulating inclusive space governance. There is a feeling among space experts that the entry of the private sector is a game-changer. The UN is keen to advance space governance though a multilateral approach that is inclusive and sustainable.
Holla-Maini warned that “time is of the essence” because “we stand at a watershed moment for governance” of the space domain. The consensus of speakers also focused on the urgency of addressing the global governance of space and emphasized the pivotal role that the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space plays and must play in the future.
The rapid and exhilarating growth and technological leaps in the space domain are making it very attractive for exploration, economic opportunities and as a future warfighting domain. This is in addition to the challenges of space debris and congestion in space because of the mushrooming number of satellites in space and the rapid increase in satellite launches.
While there is an acknowledgment of “some progress” in terms of debris removal, the situation is far from perfect because of the growing number of satellites that are expected to be launched in the next few years. Experts at the conference expected that, in the next three years, more objects will be launched into space than in the last 60 years combined. A report cited in SpaceNews predicted that “around 20,000 new satellites will launch by the end of the decade.” 

The UN is keen to advance space governance though a multilateral approach that is inclusive and sustainable.

Amal Mudallali

Space debris is not the only problem caused by the growth in the number of satellites in low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit — there is also situational awareness and the risk of collision among the thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth. A lack of communication and coordination has already led to some close calls, although they are not publicized. These close calls can happen at any time in the absence of progress on situational awareness and coordination and cooperation in space. Tim Flohrer of the European Space Agency said 80 percent of these near-misses happen in low Earth orbit.
But the new and most challenging issue on the minds of countries and the space community today is the governance of space resources, the ownership of space resources and the space economy. There is agreement on the need for governance and regulations for space resources because the speed of the development and activities “are testing the boundaries of the currently existing legal frameworks,” according to Artemis Papathanassiou, the “Space Resources” panel moderator. She added that “regulation is needed to ensure legal certainty, but it should not be too restrictive to allow economic growth.”
Joao Azevedo, from the NOVA School of Law in Portugal agreed that “we don’t want to create a choke on economic activity but we need to create balance.” He also cautioned against having a “laissez-faire approach to space resources and exploration.” He said leaving this issue to national laws “risks fragmentation and a race to the bottom.”
There are four national space laws that already exist, dealing with launches and resources: the US’ Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, the 2017 Luxembourg law on the exploration and use of space resources, the UAE federal law of 2019 on the regulation of the space sector, and Japan’s Act on the Promotion of Business Activities for the Exploration and Development of Space Resources of 2021. But not everybody thinks national laws are the answer, even though they can be useful.
Dutch space law Professor Tanja Masson-Zwaan hoped that there would be no more national laws passed because “having more of them will lead to fragmentation and, even though (the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) will take a longer time, in the end we get an inclusive and comprehensive regime.”
Space law experts advocate for the necessity of an international set of principles or international legal framework. They call for starting with, as Masson-Zwaan calls it, “adaptive governance” — a realistic approach that tries “to regulate what is visible now and not to go too far in the future.”
A legal framework is not only attractive to the space legal community, it is also welcomed by the private sector. Gerald Sanders of NASA’s Johnson Space Center told the conference that the private sector considers “having a regulatory regime as key to investment.” Experts told the conference that the private sector is in favor of keeping the 1967 Outer Space Treaty because it “provides them with legal certainty,” which is “important for business” and “gives confidence to their investors.”
The UN’s treaties on space governance, especially the Outer Space Treaty, address some of these issues but not all. The gaps in this treaty are what is propelling space governance to the top of the agenda in the new space era.
The conference stressed the centrality of the UN and especially the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in leading the way on space governance. Holla-Maini made a strong case for it, saying “we can shepherd the long-term agreements we need to ensure the long-term sustainability of space. If (the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) does not step up, we can be sure other organizations will gladly step in to fill the void of inaction, and that would not be right.”
The problem is that communication about space issues and their relevance to people’s lives is lacking. For the Summit of the Future to reach a good outcome for space, much needs to be done between now and September to elevate the issue to the top of the world’s agenda. This and the Lisbon conference are steps in the right direction. But the problem is the competition from other, more burning, issues on the agenda, especially the ongoing conflicts in two vital regions of the world: Europe and the Middle East.

Dr. Amal Mudallali is a consultant on global issues. She is a former Lebanese ambassador to the UN.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view

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