Reaching Out: New Approaches to Security in Space

Tasneem Jamal Space Security

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2009 Volume 30 Issue 1

This article is based on a presentation given at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. on January 8, 2009.

Acting responsibly in space requires clear vision, sound plans, and cooperation from spacefaring nations. Each must reach out to the others in the international community to end diplomatic gridlock. The advent of a new US Administration has sparked optimism that the path of cooperation, peaceful uses, and mutual security will be followed. The Space Security Index (SSI) contributes to this process by raising critical questions and offering a new vision of security in space.

The Space Security Index

The Space Security Index is a project of Project Ploughshares, Secure World Foundation, the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University, the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-proliferation Research at the University of British Columbia, and the Space Generation Foundation. It gets support from the Government of Canada, the Ploughshares Fund, and The Simons Foundation.

The Space Security Index is the only annual comprehensive and integrated report on activities in outer space and their impact on security, defined as secure and sustainable access to and use of space, and freedom from space-based threats. The purpose of the SSI is to improve transparency with respect to space activities. In supporting transparency, the project also aims to support the development of policy to ensure secure access for all and to facilitate dialogue on space security challenges and potential responses. Thus the annual report provides an indispensable tool for stakeholders and policymakers.

Evolution of space security

The Government of Canada initiated the Space Security Index in 2003 in reaction to the stagnation of debate on PAROS (Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space)1 and the threat of the weaponization of space. SSI’s greatest contribution thus far is the general acceptance worldwide of the definition of space security as the secure and sustainable access to and use of space and freedom from space-based threats for all actors in space. This understanding marks a shift in the use of the term “security” from narrow military perspectives to a more comprehensive approach that encompasses many facets.

To evaluate this concept of space security, eight different indicators have been selected as measures. These indicators touch on three broad areas of security: the operating environment, actors and activities in space, and space technology. Each year the indicators of space security are assessed based on activities and developments that took place in the previous year. Experts from around the world contribute to the research and engage in critical dialogue. The final result is an annual report that brings much needed objectivity, transparency, and clarity to debates surrounding security in outer space.

After five years of pursuing this approach to space security, the project has become many things to many people. Most importantly, it informs and shapes the research and opinions of people working on space security around the world.

Much ongoing work is needed to ensure that outer space remains a safe, secure, and sustainable environment. The SSI is a key tool. First, it defines the problem: maintaining secure and sustainable access to and use of space and freedom from space-based threats. This approach is not just about debris, not just about space traffic, and not just about weapons. It is about all of these and their complex interactions. Second, the SSI identifies the stakeholders and sets the table for policy discussions to include civil, military, and commercial actors, as well as the billions of people around the world who rely on space applications every day. Finally, by compiling research on critical issues affecting space security, the SSI raises new questions that policymakers must ask if we are to create a path to sustainable security in outer space.

These questions broaden the focus of security in space. Some relate to law: How do the laws of armed conflict apply in space? How does the accumulation of treaty and customary space law apply to the use of force in space? Some of these questions relate to behaviour: What is considered threatening behaviour in outer space? The BX-1 small monitoring satellite released from China’s manned Shenzhou spacecraft in October 2008 reportedly flew “close” to the International Space Station. But what is “close”? And when does “close” become threatening? Some of these questions relate to transparency: How can we believe what we are told about the intended use of a spacecraft or capability in outer space?

Other questions are considered in more detail below.

How can we make the space environment safer and sustainable?

Matter travels in orbits at tremendously high speeds, making debris a particular risk for the safe and sustainable operation of spacecraft. Imagine a busy highway in which many different vehicles travel at high speeds. Orbital debris is similar in effect to an accident on that highway, except that there is no way to clear the wreck off the road and drivers can’t slow down to avoid it. Too many accidents or too much debris make the roads and orbits unusable.

Significant international progress has been made in reducing the amount of debris created by individual space operations. However, the threat of debris is growing because more actors are moving into space, particularly in popular orbits. To continue to operate safely in this environment, accurate, timely information is essential.

Gathering information on the space environment—the amount of debris, where it is located, and what other operators are doing—is a technical challenge with technical solutions. More difficult is governance of this information, particularly as the number of actors in space increases.

Current data on the space environment is largely controlled by the US Air Force, while France and Russia have limited independent capabilities. The unprecedented and unforeseen collision on February 10 of two intact spacecraft in low Earth orbit2 demonstrates the growing importance of reliable and accurate data, and of access to data by all space actors.

Security in space is also affected by the legal and regulatory environment, which is currently marked by significant uncertainty. While many regulations and laws have been proposed, it is clear that technological developments in outer space are outpacing the existing legal framework.

How the accumulation of treaties and customary space law over the past five decades apply to actions such as China’s satellite destruction in January 2007, which created large amounts of space debris, and the February 2008 US destruction of the failed US-193 satellite with an anti-missile system is not clear.

Also uncertain is the implication of the growing number of national military policies for outer space. In many cases, they draw on terminology developed for land, sea, and air. What do terms such as “freedom of action in space,” “dominance,” and “fighting in and through space” mean for others operating in the space environment?

How should we manage activities in space to ensure safety, fairness, and mutual security?

At one time military applications of the superpowers dominated outer space. Now many states large and small, developed and developing, as well as commercial actors, are using space to gain access to data and an ever growing number of technological applications that offer many social and economic benefits. As more actors access space, questions multiply. For example, how can resources such as orbital slots and frequency spectrum be distributed fairly, particularly for those who enter the game late?

Space traffic management addresses one of the most basic problems with the growth in space activities. How do we determine the best practices in space for safe operations and how do we make sure that everyone is following the same rules? Coming back to the example of a busy highway, imagine trying to navigate it without a clear set of rules followed by all. On a highway, the result would be chaos, gridlock, and fender-benders. In outer space, the risks are much greater. The recent crash between an Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian military communications satellite, which has created a massive debris field in an already crowded orbit, is a forceful reminder of the connections between safety, sustainability, and security in space, driven by powerful laws of physics.

As more states become dependent on access to and use of space for strategic and essential needs, we must ensure that each actor has secure use of space without lessening the security of any other actor. Technology is a large driver of security in space. How do we manage the spread of potentially sensitive technology as more and more actors acquire the technical know-how to access and operate in space?

How can we balance the spread of technology with the need for security?

The powerful and exciting technology that allows access to and use of space brings with it inherent vulnerabilities and threats. Technologies able to interfere with or destroy satellite systems, including missile and laser technologies, are proliferating and outstripping the technologies that protect them.

While ground stations and communications links are the most vulnerable elements of space systems, the security of satellites in orbit is the dominant concern, because of the high cost of spacecraft, the difficulty in replacing them, potential collateral damage to the surrounding space environment should one be destroyed, and the difficulty in protecting them. Indeed, very little can be done to protect a satellite from a direct physical attack, aside from the passive defensive measures provided by distance, speed, and the laws of physics.

For the past 50 years, world powers have striven to beat out rivals by developing ever more potent space technologies. Now this competition is beginning to produce a spiral of capabilities for negation and protection that are becoming indistinguishable from one another. More active measures are being pursued to monitor, inspect, and respond to potential harm on-orbit. But one state’s guardian is another state’s anti-satellite weapon. Current technological barriers and new developments will not provide a long-term solution to security.

From questions to action

The SSI is creating a paradigm shift from narrow conceptions of national security to a more encompassing understanding of global and space security that includes civil, military, and commercial users. Initially this new perspective raises many more questions than answers. Any new space policy must address concerns about safety, sustainability, and security. These concepts are interconnected and must be treated together. None of them can be managed by one state. The way forward depends on international agreement and the cooperation of all major stakeholders and actors. Therein lies the basis of security in space.



  1. For more information on PAROS, see Estabrooks 2006 and Reaching Critical Will 2008.
  2. For more information, see Morris 2009.


Estabrooks, Sarah. 2006. Update on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. The Ploughshares Monitor. Autumn.

Morris, Jefferson. 2009. Debris from collision should stabilize soon. February 12.

Reaching Critical Will. 2008. Outer space militarization, weaponization, and the prevention of an arms race.

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