A Code of Conduct for Space


Since the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, more than six thousand satellites have been placed in space. The world has arguably become overly dependent on satellite technologies, for everything from communications and navigation through education to meteorology and military applications. The outer space environment has become increasingly congested, contested and competitive as a result.

That in turn has placed space systems at risk, not only from orbital debris and meteoroids but also from deliberate human acts involving perhaps space weapons and other counter-space capabilities, or the intentional jamming of satellite systems. The first step towards better managing risks—both real-time and strategic—is improving space situational awareness (SSA). SSA enables spacefarers to navigate the flotsam and jetsam and improve operational resilience.

SSA is a system of radars, satellites and telescopes used for detecting, tracking and predicting the movements of space debris and other space objects in real-time and providing advance warning to agencies whose active satellites are at risk of colliding with the debris. Presently, the United States manages the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which tracks space debris (albeit, not all of it) and is able to provide some advance warning to space system operators. However, with both the number of satellites and the volume of space debris on the rise, a global mechanism with additional observational platforms in different locations is now needed. Getting major stakeholders to develop a joint, user-driven mechanism could play a major role in developing transparency and confidence building mechanisms.

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For the military, SSA is a force multiplier. For non-commercial civilian governmental activities and the military alike, it provides a means of detecting the difference between missiles or debris, helping to prevent unintended consequences. (As such, SSA is both an operational and foreign policy tool.) And for the civil commercial sector, SSA will be the difference between companies that can keep crops growing, shipping lanes free from pirates, and operational disruptions minimized.

However, increased SSA capabilities are themselves not useful without the means to interdict, prevent or mitigate space infrastructure risk. SSA is not a panacea, and the dual-use applications for military and civilian use only add another layer of complexity to the equation. The unwillingness of states to reveal all information about exact orbits and their future maneuvers will limit SSA co-operation.

There is, however, a unique regional opportunity to develop an Asia-Pacific SSA mechanism, building on existing momentum and investment in space activities by Asia-Pacific nations. Other surveillance efforts, such as disease surveillance, that provide early warning so that interventions can be developed, offer examples of how information about space activities could be shared;  regional SSA hubs could share [and validate] their data in a clearinghouse.

Moreover, this would provide an opportunity for spacefaring nations and their representative industries that are making noteworthy contributions on the software side to derive the same benefits as those that have developed and operate the relevant hardware. For example, the deepening trade and security relationship between India and South Korea with respect to joint ventures and proposed industrial parks could provide a framework for facilitating an Asia-Pacific SSA. Yet although this strategic vision is achievable, the reality is that Indian civil aviation, civil maritime and homeland security operations are currently ham-fisted by internecine bureaucratic turf wars, absent or unenforced standards, and a less than optimal sense of interoperability and, South Korea has been marred by safety corruption scandals that are not particular to the civil nuclear sector alone. Effective governance is critical.

The Sky Is Falling?

The presence of spent rocket stages and fragments of old satellites (from disintegration and collisions of all origins) in outer space is itself enough of an impetus for bolstering SSA. Several studies point towards the possibility that a critical density in certain orbital bands has already been achieved. An increase in accidental or intentional hypervelocity collisions between functional satellites—like the 2009 U.S. and Russian collision—will only add to the cosmic detritus.

International terrestrial efforts to mitigate the impact of radiological emergencies arising from space objects re-entering the earth’s atmosphere are mired in UN and other organizational tensions and turf wars. The emergence of a wider dialogue on outer space emergency preparedness and response will raise many of the same terrestrial issues, such as early warning sentinel systems, first responders, transport, debris removal and waste management, information and intelligence sharing, and interoperability to name but a few. Another challenge—one that persists on earth as well—is addressing slow-onset disasters resulting from unsustainable practices, in addition to the rapid-onset disasters that SSA can predict.

Universal Commodity

Outside of the more traditional military sphere, there are multi-dimensional security interests linked to the governance of the space economy, including but not limited to: mining; protecting critical infrastructure (space stations, satellites, ground stations, spaceports, etc); consequence management; traffic; liability; and law enforcement. In fact, the largest segment of global space activity belongs to the commercial space products and services sector (38 percent), followed by the commercial infrastructure and support industries (36 percent), followed by the U.S. government space budget (16 percent), and lastly, non-U.S. governments space budgets (10 percent). Space is viewed as a universal commodity, and that leads to its abuse.

Space traffic management for civilian and military fleets will only become more important with the development of supply chains and cargo issues, not to mention the reality of space tourism. Space governance will need to address supplier reliability, safety accreditation testing and evaluation, and anti-corruption measures. Similar to the liability issues associated with state-owned enterprises or public-private partnerships, stakeholders will need to decide who owns the liability and how it will be shared. International conventions, such as the Law of the Sea, may provide guidance for how to fairly and justly distribute the responsibility of engaging in outer space activities. Where there are rights, there are correlative duties.

The approach taken by the EU in advocating for a Code of Conduct (CoC) on Outer Space Activities is commendable. The draft CoC relies upon mutually beneficial risk management principles, and its core tenets are relevant for governmental and non-governmental stakeholders alike. Yet Russia and China oppose this approach and in 2008 presented to the UN a draft treaty mechanism for discussion called the “Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty” (PPWT). The biggest drawback of the PPWT is that it is completely unverifiable. More importantly, it is silent about ground-based weapons that could damage or kill satellites in space. (China used a kinetic kill vehicle, to demonstrate its anti-satellite capability in January 2007.) Russia and China are proposing to table the second draft of the discussions shortly. At present, though, no other major spacefaring nations support the initiative.

A broad assessment based on the ongoing debate on space security issues and the cautious positions taken by various stakeholder states suggest that the CoC could become a reality in the near future. Without legally binding oversight and enforcement mechanisms, some states have voiced reservations over how to weigh and measure the CoC as an important constellation of the international security architecture, and may just make their pledges so as to avoid pariah status.

Watch This Space

It is worth evaluating the options available to resolving existing space threats and risks. Presently, there are two major issues that demand solutions, one is that of space debris (of any origin) and the other is that of weaponization of space generally. A further evolution of the architecture around the SSA to incorporate the desirable aspects voiced by commercial actors, such as the Space Data Association (SDA), is crucial. Any sustainable governance tool will need to promote operational continuity and contribute to the prevention and minimization of financial, physical, and reputational losses. A clearinghouse of space data in addition to asset management capabilities could embrace the risk management principles found in the draft EU CoC and introduce a mechanism for facilitating co-ordination amongst space operators from emergency preparedness and response to proprietary data use.

It is obvious that developing a mechanism for voluntary decelerations for the purposes of transparency and confidence-building measures to promote cooperation could be good idea in principle but would not become a substitute for legally binding norms addressing the militarization and codification of space. The United States, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and various observers could jointly attempt to devise an SSA mechanism. Other states in the region showing interest in joining any such experiment could also be encouraged to join the group. At present, only relatively rudimentary information about the orbital paths of space objects have been made available by the operators, owing to security considerations. A joint mechanism could allow these states to share such information more freely.

It is obvious that some iteration of a CoC could emerge as one of the instruments to enhance space security—even if it is high on purpose but low on effectiveness, demanding a booster dose to make it more effective. Broadening the scope of SSA is vital, even in the absence of an agreed upon space governance regime. The development of an Asia-Pacific SSA mechanism that incorporates private-sector operators would increase international engagement and TCBMs and would be a means to sharing the benefits and the risk of space activities.

Melissa S. Hersh is a Washington, D.C.-based risk consultant and Truman National Security Fellow. Dr Ajey Lele is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.

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