While outer space exploration represents infinite possibilities to the human imagination, certain behaviours can threaten the usability of space and its many resources. “Space sustainability” is ensuring that all humanity can continue to use outer space for peaceful purposes and socioeconomic benefit now and for generations to come. Achieving space sustainability will require building a common vision for space, shared by all countries and nations, and developing an accepted framework for behaviours and activities in space. The alternative will mean that, in the long run, no one will be able to benefit from space.
As COPUOS has shown, space sustainability is indeed a long-term and living process: the already formulated guidelines are tested by practice, gaps are revealed, and updated orbital statistics adds to concerns. Multiple details have to be considered to ensure safe and predictable space operations, but if LTS is to be enforceable, its regulatory regime – efficient, it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture, to build a single system on the hard-won foundation we have today. Making space sustainable for future generations is a tremendous task. We can only assume that those who succeed us will want the same things as we do. Even today, different people and peoples have different needs, including when it comes to space. Some may not have the means to access space today, to enjoy benefits of certain space applications, although they may well wish to engage in space operations later but under the current conditions – that is free from restrictions that may be imposed while they are getting ready. This approach deserves attention and respect. Otherwise the ongoing rule-making may result in compromised universality of the legal order regarding outer space. The Outer Space Treaty provides common grounds, whereas the LTS Guidelines propose specific steps. The problem arises when parties use the same words and notions but imply varying meaning (good examples from the OST are the terms ‘celestial body’ and ‘non-appropriation’). With no explicit definitions, it is therefore essential for space lawyers to do the fascinating exercise of authentic interpretation. This useful instrument may help explain ourselves and others why rules were required when space was opening up for first exploration, why law is important now when heavy exploitation is approaching, and why it will still be useful for our children, for instance, to spend a quality vacation on Mars. At least the way we can imagine it today.
The UN Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities recognize that “The Earth’s orbital space environment constitutes a finite resource”. Yet, we see limited discussion on how this finite resource is managed and more importantly (given its finite nature) how much of its capacity is currently consumed. Orbits, by definition common pool resources, face the problem of congestion as they are universally accessible, not excludable, and rivalrous in consumption. Reflecting on Ostrom’s first principle for managing a commons (i.e. defining the boundaries of the CPR and of those authorized to use it) the unprecedented deployment of space objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) compels us to raise the question of available capacity within the LEO environment, with developments at certain orbital altitudes requiring particular attention. Despite notable specificities of orbital environments, the reality of operations is bound by similar limits as other traffic regimes, whereby traffic density has an inherent upper limit that still allows for safe management and coordination. As more and more satellites share orbital environments, it naturally leads to an increase in conjunction warnings, which in turn increases the aggregate risk for collisions, further worsening the risk levels for all actors sharing adjacent orbital environments. In September 2021 the United Nations Secretary General reported on persistent calls by member states to strengthen the governance of global commons. If there is indeed political will for ensuring that the Earth’s orbital environment remains safe and sustainable, we must avoid a situation where the orbital environment would be either destroyed or monopolized by a few actors. To ensure sustainability, we don’t necessarily need better (or more) data as often suggested – while crucial for the initial identification of phenomena, data itself does not compel individual actors to utilize the resource in line with Pareto optimal. A quantitative metric focused on the available and consumed capacity in the Earth’s orbital environment, would allow us to contextualize the data and comprehend the extent to which our behaviour in this environment is (or isn’t) sustainable. Developing and agreeing on shared metrics represents a crucial enabler for setting up institutions or mechanisms to foster cooperative behaviour – a precondition for the long-term survival of any common pool resource.
The growing number of satellites in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has started to catch the attention of both people within the space sector as well as the public at large. With launch vehicles hurling tens of satellites with each launch, the space environment is definitely becoming more and more complex to manage traffic to ensure safety of the assets. There are two directions in which solutions are being created to mitigate the problem. One being adding sensors both on the ground and in space to monitor both active satellites and debris. The other being creating services that enable the removal of debris. The case for providing an advisory service to ensure safety of functional assets is quite clear. However, the case for Active Debris Removal and who pays for such a service is still quite unclear. The challenges in ADR seem very similar to the challenges in getting policymakers to agree on coming up with targets that they can achieve on climate change. From an environmentalism perspective, there is a clear case to mitigate debris and to maintain an environment that will ensure that space remains accessible for the future generations. However, from a geopolitical techno-strategic perspective, a more complex space environment will benefit select advanced space faring nations over the emerging ones. A more complex environment will need complex maneuvering of active assets, ensuring almost a real-time and perhaps even autonomous operation of active assets to ensure their safety. This implies that any actors in such a complex environment will need to have advanced space and ground-based sensors to predict such maneuvering as well as advanced systems that allow active assets to take such decisions almost autonomously. Therefore, a complex LEO space environment will make it even harder for emerging space nations to operate their own assets without adopting such technologies that are primarily only available in advanced space faring nations as of today. The influence geopolitical techno-strategists in advanced space faring nations influence space environmentalists in decision-making is set to drive the progress in ADR in this decade. Will policymakers mainly be influenced by strategic thinkers to tolerate the worsening space environment since it provides a much stronger hold to them on the theater with most emerging actors depending in some form or the other via either commercial or bi-lateral agreements from solutions arising from their own quarters?