The establishment of an international space traffic management system is quickly becoming one of the most pressing issues within the space community, and unsurprisingly so. As Earth’s orbits become increasingly congested and the strategic importance associated with the use of outer space keeps growing, the importance of setting up an internationally recognized system of rules and operational practices that enhances the safety of space objects and the long-term sustainability of space activities is gradually being acknowledged by space operators on a worldwide basis.
Among the advantages of having an international space traffic management system there is one aspect that, while being at times under-represented, it is, instead, highly important: its contribution to avoid escalation, and possibly even conflicts, in outer space; this is particularly true when one thinks of proximity operations that, while being generally intended to serve peaceful purposes, such as space debris removal or spacecraft refueling, may be in principle carried out to pursue malevolent and offensive behaviors against other countries’ satellites. Indeed, a proximity maneuver that has not been agreed among the operators of the satellites involved prior to its implementation might be easily perceived as a ‘life threatening’ move and be met by a ‘armed’ response of some sort; under such circumstances, the situation could escalate quickly and turn into a much larger conflict.
In light of the current absence of international rules addressing this matter, it would be ideal for a space traffic management regime to include provisions regulating proximity operations so as to enhance predictability of behaviors in outer space, avoid misunderstanding and ensure that close-proximity space maneuvers are undertaken pursuant to appropriate safety criteria. Undeniably, reaching an agreement on such rules will be a challenging task and only through a combination of domestic, bilateral and multilateral initiatives, as well as significant diplomatic efforts, that meaningful results could be achieved. No matter the difficulties associated with this process, it is the duty of the international community, including of space lawyers, to make all necessary efforts to enhance the long-term sustainability of space activities.