Published at Wired.com on May 10, 2022
Vice President Kamala Harris, who leads the US National Space Council, announced in April that the United States will no longer conduct destructive anti-satellite missile tests, a change that was effective immediately. The United States, China, India, and, most recently, Russia, have all conducted such tests, which blow up defunct satellites, in the process spreading thousands of bits of shrapnel throughout low Earth orbit, which can threaten spacecraft for decades.
“There’s a good display of goodwill and broad engagement. I think there’s points of consensus on what needs to be done. We need to find common understandings of how international laws apply in space.” – Jessica West
Harris’ pledge could be a key step toward negotiating new international rules for space, a process that began this week at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland, where the first of four high-profile meetings is taking place. Delegations from some 50 countries have come together to discuss the greatest threats to space activities, including from satellite-destroying missile tests and space technologies that can be used as weapons, and to explore what kinds of rules or norms could reduce those threats. On Monday, Canadian officials announced that they’re joining the US in its pledge.
“There’s a good display of goodwill and broad engagement. I think there’s points of consensus on what needs to be done. We need to find common understandings of how international laws apply in space,” says Jessica West, a senior researcher at the research institute Project Ploughshares based in Waterloo, Ontario, who’s attending the meeting. (Many representatives from nongovernmental organizations and from the space industry have come to Geneva as observers.)
In 1967, three emerging space powers, the US, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, hammered out the Outer Space Treaty, which sought to encourage the peaceful exploration of space for the benefit of all peoples. But more than half a century later, the treaty’s gaps stick out. It prohibits nuclear weapons in space, for example, but says nothing about other potential weapons, such as non-nuclear missiles, West says.
Last year, UK diplomats got the UN process rolling, proposing an “open-ended working group” to develop new norms for behavior in space. This week marks the group’s inaugural meeting; it is start of the first major effort to craft such policies since the 1967 treaty. It will be followed by another meeting in September, and two more in 2023.
This week’s meeting, chaired by Chilean diplomat Hellmut Lagos, highlights how international laws on Earth can inform the creation of new rules for space, so that negotiators don’t have to reinvent the wheel. “Probably aviation and the law of the sea are the two domains that have the most similarities to outer space. The laws and principles cannot be applied in a copy-and-paste sort of manner, but they can certainly be analogized,” says Almudena Azcárate Ortega, a space security researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research and a speaker at the meeting. She cites the principle of “due regard”—basically an international Golden Rule—which requires countries to be considerate of others’ interests while conducting their own activities. Flinging satellite shrapnel into orbit seems to violate that concept.