The annual assessment of the security of outer space released at the United Nations last week warns of mounting stress from a combination of rapid technology change and geopolitical tensions.
Space Security Index 2017 tracks developments and activities related to four indicators of the security of outer space – environmental sustainability, access to and use of space, technologies for space security, and space governance – to capture long-term changes.
The newly released 14th volume of the report is striking for its illustration of the rapid changes taking place in the space domain. Notably:
- Private sector investment is transforming space launch and space services
- Access to space-based data is accelerating around the world
- There is a shift to a more aggressive use of outer space as a potential domain of warfare;
- The U.S. Congress has expressed renewed interest in space-based missile defence.
The heightened possibility of warfare in outer space is of particular concern. In the included Global Assessment, Dr. Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists observes that “space has for decades been adjacent to conflict,” but “current trends put space at the center.”
This situation is intensified by China’s increased activity in space. In 2016, China tied the United States for the greatest number of space launch attempts, and eclipsed Russia in the number of satellites it operates. With no history of interaction and cooperation in space, China and the United States must now create the tools to temper what could become a dangerous competition.
Other sources of stress stem from ambitious new activities and investment from commercial actors, such as plans for large constellations of thousands of satellites. Such developments would transform the space environment and challenge the management of limited resources and space traffic.
A long-time advisor to the project, retired Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer notes that “at a time of escalating global tensions, the preservation of secure and sustainable access to outer space takes on heightened importance.”
The release of the report coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the foundation for global activities in outer space. Despite the mounting stress to this regime, SSI project manager Jessica West from the Canadian peace-and-security think tank Project Ploughshares sees “little effort by states parties to review and advance the core principals of the treaty.”
As Grego notes, while the treaty’s “drafters could be forgiven for not anticipating the technological and geopolitical changes that have come about in the intervening decades,” the time has come for a “renewed commitment.”
To mark the anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty and to raise awareness of the advancing application of space technology, as well as the vulnerabilities of this unique environment, SSI partner organizations are offering a free download of Space Security Index 2017 until the end of October.
A commitment to maintain the secure and sustainable use of outer space could help to stabilize access to what has become a critical global resource. As the SSI report indicates, global industry, human development and security, environmental monitoring, disaster response, and economic growth depend on space-based services and information. In 2016, there were:
- 1,459 active satellites
- 70+ civil space programs
- 85 orbital launch attempts by eight different states
- 55+ state owners of satellites
- 36 activations of the UN Charter on Space and Major Disasters
- new space venture investments valued at $2.8-billion
- global satellite industry revenues of $261-billion.
Space Security Index 2017 was produced by a group of international organizations led by the Canadian nonprofit organization Project Ploughshares. Partners include The Simons Foundation in British Columbia; the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec; the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, DC; the Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics at the University of Adelaide Law School in Australia; and the School of Law at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China.