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“Exploit the opportunity, mitigate the threat”

This article is written by Jisha Garg, from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. This is an exhaustive article dealing with the long-term sustainability of space activities. The article explores the need for such sustainability and the mechanisms adopted by India in this regard. It explores several of the efforts to develop international agreements in order to support the sustainability of space operations. The article finally talks about various guidelines and measures that can be adopted in this regard. 

Introduction

The term “sustainability of space activities” made its public appearance in 2010 in U.S. National Space Policy. There are unlimited benefits of space activities which include national security benefits, commercial and economic benefits, and benefits in monitoring the environment and how to manage resources. The space world is undergoing a period of significant change through the proliferation of new actors and new countries, growth of commercial space, launching lots of more satellites and large constellations in the space environment. The new developments occurring in the space environment are proving instrumental in developing better ways to benefit our lives. The challenge, however, is how the States and international community ensure that the introduction of new actors and satellites do not harm the ability to use space long-term.

Earlier there was a lack of awareness with regard to the sustainable development of space activities because space was considered as empty and very vast. However, over the last several decades, with the increase in space activities, there was a growing awareness that the sustainability of space activities gained consideration from various actors involved in the process. Over the years with the change in awareness, a major challenge that has emerged and has remained consistent is the governance framework, international treaties and national policies and regulations. The policies at the national and international level have not changed significantly with regard to the change in space activities. The sustainable development of space activities has become a voluntary exercise with no legal framework in existence.

Need to ensure sustainable development of space activities

Outer space needs to be safe, secure and peaceful in order to procure maximum benefits for the States and the international community. If outer space is unsafe and chaotic, we would be unable to use space for telecommunications, scientific exploration, Earth observation, national security purposes or the environment. Lack of sustainability would endanger human spaceflight in Earth orbit and deprive us of the benefits derived from space-based technology.

Lack of sustainable development of space activities would create innumerable problems for the emerging space nations since the deterioration of outer space would prevent them from exploring outer space and sending missions. Sustainability is quintessential in order to mitigate the harmful effects of extensively using outer space so that the technologically weaker countries would also use it in the future.

National laws

Indian scenario

India is one of the earliest space powers and has been investing enormous wealth in space activities for many years now. It is, therefore, centric to India’s diplomatic policy to be involved in decision making relating to restricting certain space activities. It is also important to assert India as one of the potential players in any normative exercise relating to space activities.

India currently has about 90 satellites providing a variety of services in order to achieve the purpose of national development. However, the satellites can be made dysfunctional by high power lasers and jammers. Even floating debris can create obstructions and cause harm to space missions. Therefore, the security of space objects has become of paramount importance for India.

Governance mechanisms

Currently, there are three existing space governance mechanisms namely United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), the Outer Space Treaty (OST) signed in 1967 and the Conference on Disarmament (CD). However, India lacks in formulating a national law providing for sustainable development of space activities. Although various efforts have been made in the past yet the lawmakers have failed to reach a consensual conclusion.

There are various international initiatives and treaties that India has supported for the sustainable development of space activities. India, being a member of G-21 countries, has supported the legislation for banning the placement of weapons in outer space. At various international forums, India has supported a pragmatic approach and given the legal framework a secondary position.

International efforts

There were various committees and working groups that were formed at the international level in order to address the issue of sustainable development of space activities. One such committee was the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space which was formed to look at different aspects of the long-term sustainability of various space activities. In this regard, a subcommittee named Scientific and Technical Subcommittee was formed in 2010. A Working Group on the Long-term sustainability of Outer Space Activities which had the following objectives:

  1. Producing guidelines in order to reduce the risks associated with space activities.
  2. Proposing measures for enhancing the sustainability of space activities.
  3. Identifying areas of concern for long-term sustainability of various space activities.

The working group and its experts addressed various thematic areas including space weather; sustainable space utilization; space debris, space operations and space situational awareness; and regulatory guidance for various actors.

The first set of guidelines was agreed to by the committee in June 2016. Consensus on a Preamble and nine guidelines was reached in 2018. Various guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space activities were adopted in June, 2019. They were related to:

  1. Safety of space operations.
  2. Capacity building, international cooperation and awareness.
  3. Guidance on the policy and regulatory framework for space activities.
  4. Scientific and technical research and development.

How to ensure sustainable development of space activities

There were various guidelines that were given by the working committee in order to ensure long-term sustainability of space activities. Some of the guidelines are mentioned below:

Policy and regulatory framework

Amending national regulatory frameworks

Various States should revise and amend their national laws in accordance with the UN framework in order to regulate their activities in outer space and ensure sustainability of such activities. States should also focus on implementing the internationally accepted norms for the safe conduct of space activities since States bear international responsibility for such activities. While revising and amending national regulatory frameworks, it is important that States adhere to the UN General Assembly’s resolution regarding the same for peaceful exploration of outer space and launch subsequent missions. Obligations mentioned under Article VI of Outer Space Treaty should be given special attention in order to ensure long-term sustainability of outer space activities. The initiatives promoting long-term sustainability should be encouraged by laying out descriptive regulations as opposed to prescriptive ones.

Supervising national space activities

It is the obligation of the States to supervise the functioning of the entities within their jurisdiction and to ensure that their activities are in consonance to the standards laid down for achieving the long term sustainability goals of outer space activities. States should also bear international responsibility for the activities of such entities in outer space and also seek authorisation for the continuation of such activities which need to be in consonance with international regulations. States are encouraged to appoint a responsible entity to plan and access space activities in furtherance of the Sustainable Development Goals. States should ensure that the established entity should be competent to lay down structures and procedures to conduct outer space activities that support the objective of long-term sustainability. A proper communication and consultation mechanism needs to be laid down among the competent authorities in order to ensure transparency and consistency.

Encourage the practise of registering space objects

States are obliged to ensure the implementation of effective registration practises in accordance with Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on Registration of Objects as it is one of the key factors in ensuring safety and long-term sustainability of space activities.

It is important for the States and International Organisations to strengthen the registration process by adopting relevant policies and regulations in order to ensure long-term sustainability of such registration processes. Registration helps in providing timely information about the operation and status of space activities. In case the space object is launched from some other territory, then both the states involved should jointly determine the registration process. Those states under whose jurisdiction the unregistered space object lies should also be involved in the registration process. In the course of the registration process, if a State seeks clarification from another state, then such clarifications should be needed to be provided by the responding states.

Safety of space operations 

Sharing information on orbital events and space objects

State and international organisations should voluntarily exchange regularly updated information on their designated entities. Such timely coordination is necessary in order to reduce the possibility of orbital break-ups, orbital collusions and other accidental collisions which may cause a threat to human life and have an adverse impact on the goal of ensuring the long-term sustainability of space objects or missions launched. Reliable, complete, practicable and accurate information must be provided by the States in order to warn about the potential threats in the near-Earth space which may threaten the various space operations. A dedicated consultative process should be in place in order to acquire a special understanding of practical issues and modalities. States should accumulate and provide access to information on outer-space objects in order to achieve consistency and safety of space operations.

Developing practical approaches

Mitigating the effects of space weather

Coordinated efforts are encouraged in order to fill the gaps in research models and forecasting tools and strengthen the space weather information services. Further research and development should be promoted and supported in order to develop advanced space weather tools which would mitigate the adverse impact of changing the solar environment on the various space missions and objects. The following practical measures are suggested to promote cooperation and coordination on ground:

  1. Effective coordination between space weather service providers and satellite observers is encouraged in order to procure necessary information to mitigate anomalies.
  2. A common format is encouraged in order to report space weather information. In this regard, the satellite providers may comply with a template proposed by the coordination group.
  3. Merely developing advanced space weather technologies would be least beneficial unless someone has the required knowledge and expertise to operate such systems. Therefore, adequate training must be provided in order to decode space weather data and prevent any anomalies in the future.

States are also encouraged to share the lessons learnt while mitigating the effects of space weather conditions. They are also encouraged to share the guidelines and practises in relation to mitigating the effects of space weather. Such satellite designs must be incorporated which have a recovery mechanism from the adverse effects of space weather. Each State is required to carry out a risk assessment and share the relevant information with other states.

Addressing the risks associated with uncontrolled entry of space objects

States should establish procedures to provide information with regard to the uncontrolled entry of space objects into their area and in the areas under the particular state’s jurisdiction. The information provided should be communicated and coordination should be established amongst the states involved or affected by the intrusion in order to mitigate its effects. The information should be timely available to the affected States so that the States could address the risks associated with uncontrolled re-entries. The states lacking tracking facilities, technical capabilities and adequate resources must be helped by more equipped States in order to ensure sustainable development of space activities. 

Conclusion

Space sustainability is a concept that is gaining greater relevance and greater interest among different stakeholders. There is emerging consensus on issues including weapons in outer space, space debris, accidents and collisions. However, there are various weaknesses in the current mechanisms related to sustainable development of space activities. Military activities are not a part of the COPUOS mandate and the measures taken through the Outer Space Treaty have several loopholes. 

Even India lacks in terms of a national policy to ensure sustainable development of space activities. In order to sustain space activities for a long period of time, it is important for the States in the international community to formulate effective mechanisms in order to mitigate the adverse impact of the ongoing space activities. The international community needs to coordinate and make collective efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities so that outer space could be effectively explored by future generations, the benefits of which could be utilized by the international community collectively.

References 


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