How Secure is Outer Space? Assessing the Threat to Space

Ploughshares Space Security

Author Claire Jolly

Key activities in everyday life—weather forecasting, global communications and broadcasting, disaster prevention and relief—depend increasingly on the unobtrusive utilization of space technologies. Over the coming decades, space-related applications, such as land-use management, distance education, telemedicine, precision farming, and monitoring of various international treaties, will hold important socioeconomic promise.

Assessing space security

Factors to consider when assessing space security include:

  • the physical state of the space environment (e.g., levels of radiation, passage of asteroids);
  • the day-to-day functioning and long-term sustainability of space platforms in orbit (e.g., space debris, extreme space weather impacts);
  • the malevolent uses of platforms or their sabotage (e.g., frequency interference, denial of access); and
  • the weaponization of space platforms.

The concept of space security used here is based on the principles enacted in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The Outer Space Treaty’s overarching notion is to promote the secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space by all space actors, and freedom from space-based threats.

An optimally secure outer space therefore requires that countries and their nationals should pursue their respective space activities without putting at risk the sustainability, stability, and free access to, and use of, space orbits, so that space remains open for all. This ideal outer space regime is being challenged by some current activities.

What is the state of space security in 2013?

Do countries and their nationals today have, as the Outer Space Treaty requires, a “secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space and freedom from space-based threats”? My general response would be “yes.” An increasing number of countries have access to, and use of, secure space. However, the space environment is becoming ever more risk-prone and the sustainability of space platforms is increasingly coming into doubt.

Several countries are pursuing military space capabilities, which are difficult to assess objectively. In many cases, development of these military space capabilities may be more for deterrence than planned aggression. 

Trends in the global space sector

Access to space by an ever increasing number of actors could be seen as a possible threat to space security. Malevolent states and criminal groups could have easier access to space technologies and capabilities. However, the rising number of countries having access to, and use of, space should, be seen as positive. There were 78 successful space launches in 2012. More than 50 countries now have a satellite in orbit, and more launches are planned for the next couple of years.

More actors are using space applications, making positive contributions to environmental sustainability and socioeconomic development. Improvements can be seen in increased industrial activity, cost efficiencies, and productivity gains in such diverse economic sectors as environmental monitoring, agriculture previsions, and weather forecasting for air transport and shipping. For example, the growth of positioning, navigation, and timing applications, which rely on satellite signals, has spurred new commercial markets, such as satellite navigation chipsets in smartphones. On the other hand, the dual nature of space applications could be seen as a negative factor for international security, as an increasing number of malevolent groups could be accessing technologies, such as satellite navigation tools that could be easily applied to illegal and military activities.

The commercial development of space keeps growing. While space activities were essentially public at the beginning of the space age, the role of private actors has expanded in recent decades. Space firms have restructured and formed new alliances, while the opening of markets has benefited selected segments of the industry. But institutional funding remains key for many space activities and even developed space markets are often dependent on institutional customers; defence departments of nations from around the world are often the anchor customers of commercial satellite remote sensing providers. On the other hand, some commercial activities, such as nascent suborbital tourism, may bring new opportunities (but also new challenges in terms of safety and regulations).

Military space capabilities are growing around the world. There are indications that some countries are pursuing space-based negation-enabling capabilities, including directed energy weapons that make use of a ground-based laser directed at a satellite to temporarily dazzle or disrupt sensitive optics, kinetic hit-to-kill systems, and explosive or pellet clouds. In 2013 anti-satellite weapon tests are re-emerging, as spacefaring countries develop both defensive and offensive systems.

Technical capacities to deal with natural and manmade threats in orbit

Orbital debris is a real operational problem. In 2012 several commercial satellite operators and the partners of the International Space Station (ISS) had to repeatedly use space debris-avoidance maneuvers. The number of objects in the most used orbits is still growing. Experts estimate that there are over 300,000 objects with a diameter larger than one centimetre and several million that are smaller.

Interference of satellite signals is another problem. Satellite services are, paradoxically, suffering from their growing popularity. As they are increasingly integrated into a wider information and communication infrastructure, they are engaged in fierce competition for radio-frequency spectrum. Terrestrial networks being put in place in many parts of the world dent the strength of satellite signals reception. So does the growing intentional jamming of signals by criminal groups and certain governments, resulting in the distortion of GPS signals and satellite communications links. Technical developments to alleviate conflicts over bandwidth allocation include shielding, frequency hopping, lower power output, digital signal processing, frequency-agile transceivers, and software-managed spectrum. To circumvent intentional and unintentional interference from third parties, satellites operators and ground-based equipment providers are also looking at possible technical solutions.

National capacities in space situational awareness (SSA) as well as research and development on active debris remediation and removal are slowly increasing. The objective of SSA is to be able to determine the state of the space environment for safe space operations and includes the tracking, cataloguing, and screening of objects in space, as well as determining and predicting space weather. Space weather extremes are now better understood and there has been progress in predicting solar flares. But greater efforts are needed to track space debris, including harmful satellite re-entries. Several national departments of defence, space agencies, and companies are pursuing long-term programs to develop new orbital platforms and on-orbit servicing capabilities. One example is the Canadian Space Agency’s robotic arms experiments on the ISS.

International cooperation for a sustainable use of space orbits

National space laws and regulations provide “rules of the road.” National laws and regulations constitute the prime layers for a more transparent governance of space activities. They provide essential guidelines for national actors—public and private—involved in space activities, as well as important information for foreign operators. Over the past decade, the number of space laws has grown exponentially, as more governments and private actors have become involved in space activities. In 2012 countries including the United States and United Kingdom enacted new texts providing more clarity on their space activities.

Dealing with satellite signal interferences at the international level. As more actors become involved in space activities new competition for spectrum use has arisen from ground-based telecommunications services. As the scope for wireless communications increases, efficient spectrum allocation and orbital allocation are becoming increasingly important policy and economic issues. In 2012 approximately 3,000 delegates attended the World Radiocommunication Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). They made some key revisions to the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. However, governments cannot be forced to strictly apply ITU regulations.

Dealing with space debris at the international level. Ambitious international plans to mitigate debris began only a decade ago. In 2002 the European Space Agency produced the European Space Debris Safety and Mitigation Standard. That same year the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, which is charged with coordinating national efforts, issued its first guidelines on limiting debris released during normal space operations, minimizing the potential for in-orbit breakups, post-mission disposal, and prevention of collisions. Today there is heightened international awareness of the space debris problem. More conferences and workshops than ever before focus on space debris issues. However, compliance with international debris mitigation guidelines remains uneven. Much remains to be done to engage all the different actors, including emerging spacefaring countries, academia, and the private sector.

Dealing with Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) at the international level. NEOs are comets or asteroids that orbit the sun, closely approaching Earth.  International awareness of NEOs is growing. Today, there is more discussion at international forums and scientific conferences. However, the NEO threat is not yet as well defined, presented, and recognized internationally as space debris and signal interference.

Final observation

When the growing global importance of a secure and sustainable space infrastructure is taken into account, a key message emerges: policymakers from spacefaring nations need to take further actions to improve the long-term sustainability of the main orbits already used extensively today.

This article is drawn from “A Global Assessment of Space Security,” a chapter in Space Security Index 2013, recently published by Project Ploughshares on behalf of Spacesecurity.org.

Claire Jolly is Senior Policy Analyst with the International Futures Prgramme in the Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Spread the Word