Uncharted territory in outer space

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For most of us, outer space is not a topic of regular conversation. It seems to be physically removed from our everyday experiences, a distant place that we imagine to be cold and barren or the stuff of fantastic fiction.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 2 Summer 2018 by Jessica West

This distance is an illusion. We on Earth are now intimately connected with what goes on in outer space in ways we could only dimly imagine a few decades ago.

Critical to most of our daily activities are satellite services—invisible but essential streams of data and connectivity. And outer space is neither barren nor fanciful, but rhe focus of emerging technology, economic activity, social development, environmental monitoring, and, of course, national security. Outer space is one of the fastest changing domains of human activity.

Project Ploughshares and our partner organizations on the Space Security Index have been tracking these changes for 15 years. The results can be seen in the annual Space Security Index volumes, available in electronic and hard-copy formats.

In May, the SSI governance group gathered in Montreal with a group of experts from a variety of fields and countries to analyze the importance of events of 2017 for the safety, security, and sustainability of activities in outer space. The changes taking place are both exciting and concerning.

We all have a stake

Space is becoming a domain in which all the countries of Earth have a stake. Private sector services provide an unparalleled ability to monitor Earth, collect and send data, and enable global communication. The potential for an economy based in outer space is also emerging, with a focus on tourism, exploration, and even mineral extraction.

Much of this activity is outpacing existing national and international regulation. International organizations, such as various United Nations entities, are struggling to provide the rules and oversight that ensure that new activities—such as the launching of mega-constellations of satellites—do not negatively affect the long-term sustainability of popular orbits.

Space debris—fragments from rockets and satellites—is perhaps the most critical challenge. Securing future access for new uses and new users is becoming another prominent concern as well.

We need new answers to old questions

With so many technical problems to solve, ethical questions go unanswered. But we need to consider them. For example: What is the best way to use and distribute space resources so that all humans benefit? How do we venture into deep space with a minimal impact on the surrounding environment? Are there valid, ethical reasons for space exploration? What are they?

Humans must also confront the use of outer space in terrestrial security. Space-based capabilities are foundational in modern warfare. Many states are preparing for the consequences of direct confrontation in space. But we really don’t know what they will be. Yes, the space environment will be harmed. Yes, civilian and commercial services will be disrupted. But how far out into space would such damage extend? How can damage be contained? The looming spectre of a space war casts a long, dark shadow.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Looking back to the First Space Age, it is clear that the coexistence of immense opportunity and profound challenge is not new. Then, we developed mutual understandings through dialogue and, eventually, international law to guide brand-new space activities. Now something more is needed.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space did recently complete a compendium of guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. But SSI participants at the May meeting believe that the world must work more quickly and delve into the more contentious challenges, including the use of space in warfare.
There are deep divides over how this should be done, and by whom. But civil society must be part of the conversation.

The future of outer space concerns all of us.

Photo caption: Some members of the Space Security Index research team gathered in Montreal for the 15th annual Space Security Working Group meeting (May 19-20, 2018). In the photo, from left, Dr. Ram Jakhu, Dr. Peter Hays, Valérie Bastien-Dupuis, Jessica West, Kiran Nair, Jamil Castillo, Julia Selman, Lukas Price, Cody Knipfer.

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