Anarchy in Space: The Need for a Comprehensive Security Regime for Outer Space

Tasneem Jamal Space Security

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2009 Volume 30 Issue 2

Two events early in 2009 drew attention to the ongoing quest for security in outer space. On February 11 two satellites unexpectedly collided in space. On April 5 North Korea attempted to launch a satellite into orbit. While technically unrelated, both events point to the urgent need for a comprehensive security regime for outer space to ensure an orderly and secure space environment.

Two satellites collide

The current operating situation in space is approaching organized chaos. The basic laws of physics do much to determine where satellites will operate and keep them more or less in a predictable orbit, but no one is running the show. With more and more satellites in orbit and limited access to precise orbital data, one rule should be clear: expect the unexpected.

The collision of the operational Iridium-33 satellite with the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 was unpredicted and unprecedented, but not surprising. The collision took place in low Earth orbit, where roughly 450 satellites are currently operating to serve the needs of 115 countries (Hotz 2009). The collision created a large amount of debris. As of April 30, the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN) of ground-based sensors had tracked 296 pieces of debris associated with Iridium-33 and 655 pieces associated with Cosmos-2251 (Kelso 2009). These are only the pieces big enough to be tracked. Thousands more are untracked. All can damage or even destroy other satellites.

Space tracking and notification

The SSN, operated by the US Air Force, is currently the only global satellite-tracking system capable of tracking manmade objects in Earth orbit, including:

  • operational satellites,
  • dead satellites that continue to drift in space, and
  • relatively large pieces of junk, now totaling about 18,000 objects, mostly in the crowded low Earth orbit where the collision took place.

The orbital positions of most of these objects (excluding US military satellites) are published through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), using what are called two-line elements (TLEs) that provide rough estimates of the paths that they are following through space.

The US Air Force has a limited ability to provide conjunction analyses to warn of close encounters that could potentially result in collisions in space. Using its own more precise, unpublished orbital data, it screens about 300 satellites each day, primarily for the operators of US government satellites, NASA, and spacecraft carrying humans. While other operators can request this information, it is not always provided. For example, in December 2008 Peter de Selding reported that the US Air Force had declined to provide the more precise data that operator Intelsat had requested so that it could plan a satellite manoeuvre after its own prediction of a close approach with a Russian communications satellite (the Air Force did confirm that their data did not indicate a potential collision). Without more precise information, operators cannot reliably move their satellites out of harm’s way. Indeed, a wrong move could be worse than doing nothing.

Attempting to fill the void in accessible information is the Center for Space Standards and Innovations. This not-for-profit organization runs conjunction analyses on all satellites in orbit (active and inactive), using the TLE data provided by NORAD through a service called SOCRATES (Satellite Orbital Conjunction Reports Assessing Threatening Encounters in Space), and providing free reports to satellite operators. But the system is limited by the accuracy of the TLE data and timeliness of operators’ data. On the day that the Iridium and Cosmos satellites collided, SOCRATES did predict a close approach, but this approach did not make the Top Ten list for the day (Kelso 2009). There was no attempt to move the operating satellite out of the way.

A rocket is launched

In contrast to the surprising satellite collision, the attempted rocket launch by North Korea was long expected. This event exemplifies the spreading access to sensitive technologies that many world leaders bemoan and fear.

The timeline for the launch attempt stretches back to 1998 when North Korea first fired what it called a space launch vehicle, the Taepodong-1, which was based on a long-range ballistic missile and was identified as such by many commentators. The rocket flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. In 2006 North Korea tried a similar launch using a new vehicle, the Taepodong-2, which crashed shortly after takeoff. That same year North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a Resolution demanding that the country cease all activities related to its ballistic missile program and imposing sanctions, which evidently were not effectively implemented.

In July 2008 Jane’s Information Group published commercial satellite images that revealed that North Korea had “secretly” built a second, much larger launch pad capable of launching both ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. This activity would not have surprised those who had been providing North Korea with expertise and hardware, or those who had the ability to observe the progress of the site from unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites.

Many world leaders expressed serious concern when North Korea announced in March 2009 that it intended to launch what it called a civilian satellite into outer space. Some called it a ballistic missile in disguise and Japan threatened to intercept it with its new Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. Nonetheless, the launch took place on April 5, using a modified version of the original Taepodong-2, now called the Unha-2 space launch vehicle. It too crashed into the ocean (BBC News 2009). It too was condemned by the UNSC (CBC News 2009). And, once again, sanctions have been applied.

A space launch vehicle or a ballistic missile?

The debate still rages: was this a space launch vehicle or a ballistic missile? The short answer is both. On the one hand, North Korea treated it as a space launch vehicle. Shortly after joining the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space in March 2009 (RIA Novosti 2009), it notified the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Authority of the impending launch and predicted flight path and crash points for the first two stages of the rocket so that ships and aircraft could avoid the area (Wright 2009). Images of the rocket indicate that it appeared to have a satellite, perhaps only a dummy, on board. At one point North Korea falsely announced that the satellite was playing the country’s national anthem in outer space, just as it still falsely claims that the 1998 launch succeeded in placing a similar satellite in orbit.

On the other hand, a space launch vehicle and a ballistic missile are closely related. They share the same fundamental rocket technology but have different trajectories. A missile carrying a warhead travels in an elliptical orbit which has a path around the Earth, whereas a space launch vehicle lifts its payload to the desired altitude above the Earth, with enough forward thrust so that the satellite can remain in orbit (Weeden 2009).

Because North Korea’s rocket failed, information on its intended trajectory is inconclusive (Gabrynowicz 2009). While in retrospect the attempted launch may seem more like a circus show than an international threat, it illustrates the very real security concerns of the space age. North Korea is not the first to use a ballistic missile as a space vehicle, and it won’t be the last. Hence, we need better systems to help ensure that the right to use outer space for peaceful purposes, as enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty, does not threaten the well-being of others.

A call for transparency and universality

A satellite collision and a failed launch attempt may seem to represent different concerns. The first is predominantly a safety issue while the second relates to security and nonproliferation. However, the security of outer space—the secure and sustainable access to and use of space, and freedom from space-based threats—encompasses both. Sustainability requires both. The obvious lesson after examining the two incidents is that a comprehensive approach that encompasses both safety and security in space is needed. Two of the most important underlying principles that should guide such an approach are transparency and universality.

Precise information is critical for operating safely in space and confidence about what is being put into space is critical to security. Both require transparency in space activities. This transparency must be universal: information must be freely supplied by all users of space and be made available to everyone. The rules must apply to everyone equally, without exception.

The rationale for having a standard set of operating procedures in space is obvious. The need for a standard set of laws governing such security issues as access to sensitive technologies, while perhaps not as obvious, can be justified on the basis of past mistakes related to security. Attempts to deal with such threats as nuclear weapons and missiles by creating a two-tiered system of “have” and “have-not” nations are not succeeding. Often the have-nots acquire the technology anyway, either purchasing it clandestinely or developing it themselves. A governance regime that ensures the safety of what is put into space and the intention of use for peaceful purposes is in order.



BBC News. 2009. North Korea space launch “fails.” April 5.

CBC News. 2009. UN Security Council condemns North Korea rocket launch. April 13.

De Selding, Peter. 2008. U.S. Air Force declined to help Intelsat with maneuver. Space News 5, December.

Gabrynowicz, Joanne Irene. 2009. Analysts spar over launch image—North Korean rocket trajectory may be too shallow for satellite launch. Res Communis, April 8.

Hotz, Robert Lee. 2009. Harmless debris on earth is devastating in orbit. The Wall Street Journal. February 26.

Kelso, T.S. 2009. Iridium 33 / Cosmos 2251 collision. Last updated April 30.

RIA Novosti. 2009. N. Korea joins space treaty, convention—Russian ministry source. March 12.

Weeden, Brian. 2009. A space launch vehicle by any other name…. The Space Review. March 9.

Wright, David. 2009. Examining North Korea’s satellite launch vehicle. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 24.

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