New actors in space is a tricky idea to define. Is it determined by the number of years a player has been in the space business, or something more nuanced? If one is talking about industry and the commercial sector, it is relatively easy to categorize and identify who is a new actor in space. But when it comes to states, what determines who is a new space actor is slightly more problematic.
Surely, those emerging states that are pursuing space programs can be called new actors in space. Nevertheless, one must push the envelope further to look at who the traditional players are, and these are the United States, Russia, and Europe. Therefore, even countries like India and China and others who have pursued space programs for a few decades now can be called new actors in space. This is the case because one is beginning to see new facets of their space programs which are affecting space security and sustainability dynamics.
But the space domain is changing. It is not just the presence of new start-up companies that are altering the space landscape, but there are any number of new state actors that are pursuing space programs for a number of different functions and utilities. This has been possible because there has been certain amount of democratization of space with access to space becoming a lot more affordable. Costs are coming down, technological hurdles are lower, and new space collaboration and partnerships driven by geopolitical goals are introducing new players in space. These make it possible for a growing number of actors to pursue space programs. Many states in Africa, Latin America, and particularly Asia are pursuing space programs for a variety of different utilities including for national security applications.
Entry of new actors in space bring both opportunities and challenges. On the opportunity side, space has become more accessible to a large number of states due to innovation in technology and dilution of certain global export control regulations. The development benefits alone of this are huge. There is a great opportunity here, for both private sector and for others, to collaborate with these new actors because they are looking for efficient, cheap, flexible solutions (such as in communications, or in weather forecasting or in remote-sensing applications for land use etc) rather than simply prestige projects.
New private actors bring new energy, new ideas, possibly a more efficient way of doing things. Of course, when private corporations get involved, some part of the social needs that governments focus on can be lost, obviously, since private actors are less likely to focus on development issues or on non-profit ventures. Even here, though, we need to acknowledge the general contribution made by these new entities in terms of the technologies they develop, which will have a broader impact, and make space more accessible.
Also, it is important to see what kind of partnerships can be fostered to make space accessible to all. Partnerships between private sector and national programs will be a good burden-sharing arrangement. This kind of public-private sector partnership has worked in the Western context with a lot more ease, but in the Asian context, it has not been easy. We see a bit of it, but established government space agencies tend to be suspicious of new private actors, such as in India. Another problem might be the kind of areas that private sector is involved, whether there are only areas servicing expensive, well-heeled customers (such as space tourism) or whether they are also looking at things that benefit smaller, poorer countries.
The entry of new actors in space has brought certain risks as well. One major risk is related to the impact on norms of behavior. With more actors in space, there has been a dilution of some of the existing norms and the new players appear to be less willing to play by rules developed by others. For instance, the norm of not testing anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that prevailed for decades appear to be weakening. More importantly, the norm of not interfering in each other’s space assets appear to be getting diluted even further with the growth in cyber and electronic warfare in outer space.
The established players who have shaped these norms appear less likely to break those norms as compared to new players who are less bound by them. Newer players possibly assume that these norms are a way of restricting their growth and therefore they are less likely to play by them. Additionally, the spread of technology and geopolitical competition have aided this dilution of norms.
Therefore, as new players emerge in space, one of the critical areas to focus on is to strengthen the rules of the road, in a number of different ways. These could include establishing or reinforcing norms of responsible behavior, developing TCBMs and codes of conduct. These are the required first steps before establishing legal mechanisms because of the political difficulties that have come in the way of making new legal frameworks for outer space.
Rule-making was an easier exercise when there were fewer actors, obviously. Today, with close to 80 actors including non-state and new actors in space, finding an agreement and developing consensus has become a significant challenge. Finding an avenue to bring in the commercial voice is also important but traditional venues such as the Conference on Disarmament (CD), where space security and arms control issues are debated, are opposed to the introduction of commercial players as a stakeholder in their debates. This is not to suggest that commercial perspectives cannot be brought in through governments. But involving commercial players as independent actors in CD-like venues is not likely to happen in the near future.
Clearly, politics in outer space is getting complicated. It needs far more concerted attention than it has received. It may not be too late yet, but time is running out.