OCA Policy Brief 7 titled, ‘For All Humanity: The Future of Outer Space Governance,’ examines the “extraordinary changes” underway in outer space and provides an assessment of their sustainability, safety, and security impacts on present and future governance.
It outlines major trends that are affecting space sustainability, describes the positive impact these trends could have on achieving the SDGs, and highlights major trends affecting the security of outer space activities, along with “the risks to humanity that could materialize if these challenges are not solved”.
By Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, IISD Tracking Progress, and SDG Hub Content Editor
“Most of us will never travel to space,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement last week. “It can be hard to understand why we should care what is happening there, with so much poverty and hunger here on earth.” Yet care we should. Dramatic advances underway in outer space mean that whatever is happening there has implications for all of us.
Consider, for example, the unprecedented number of satellites being launched into orbit, the participation of the private sector in activities formerly carried out exclusively by states, and the return of astronauts to deep space after more than half a century since the last flight of the Apollo programme in 1972. It is now more important than ever to ensure that risks are mitigated and opportunities are harnessed in a way that is sustainable and inclusive.
“New era in outer space”
In May, the UN Secretariat published a policy brief outlining the Secretary-General’s “practical governance recommendations for maximizing the opportunities of outer space while minimizing short-term and long-term risks.” The publication is the seventh of 11 policy briefs that elaborate on the proposals contained in Our Common Agenda (OCA) by offering “concrete ideas” to advance work. Developed taking into account Member States’ guidance and intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder consultations, the policy briefs are intended to contribute to preparations for the Summit of the Future in 2024, which is expected to “agree on multilateral solutions for a better tomorrow.”
OCA Policy Brief 7 titled, ‘For All Humanity: The Future of Outer Space Governance,’ examines the “extraordinary changes” underway in outer space and provides an assessment of their sustainability, safety, and security impacts on present and future governance. It outlines major trends that are affecting space sustainability, describes the positive impact these trends could have on achieving the SDGs, and highlights major trends affecting the security of outer space activities, along with “the risks to humanity that could materialize if these challenges are not solved.”
The brief describes a “new era in outer space,” characterized by:
- Exponential growth in the number of satellites launched into orbit – from 210 in 2013 to 2,470 in 2022, largely driven by private sector actors;
- A rapid increase in the number of private missions to space, including the first commercial mission to the International Space Station in 2021, – a trend led predominantly by the US, but with increasing participation of China, India, and Japan; and
- The return of humans to deep space, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US planning a manned flight around the moon on its new Space Launch System rocket in 2024, while the US private company SpaceX “plans to launch a crew of artists to deep space on its experimental and fully reusable rocket system, Starship.”
Among existing outer space governance mechanisms, the policy brief highlights: treaties developed through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on challenges and risks associated with space exploration; treaties relating to space security; as well as provisions, guidelines, frameworks, and recommendations relating to a broad set of issues such as radio frequencies and associated satellite orbits, space debris mitigation, and nuclear power source safety, among others.
Challenges and opportunities
Noting that nearly 40% of SDG targets use Earth observation and global navigation satellite systems – a link recognized in the UN’s “Space2030” Agenda, the Secretary-General identifies opportunities relating to Earth observation, communication, satellite navigation, and science and how to leverage them to strengthen the contribution of space activities and space tools to the achievement of the SDGs.
Space-based challenges described in the policy brief relate to:
- A relative lack of space traffic coordination, which “widens the gap for countries with less space capacity, making it harder for them to operate their limited space assets in an increasingly complex environment”;
- The lack of an international mechanism or body to monitor or facilitate the removal of space debris – a challenge expected to be compounded by the large number of satellites in low Earth orbit;
- The absence of an agreed international framework or mechanism on resource activities, including space resource exploration, exploitation, and utilization; and
- The need for additional normative frameworks “to prevent any extension of armed conflict into outer space and to prevent the weaponization of outer space.”
To ensure the sustainability of outer space, the Secretary-General recommends that the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space either develop a unified regime for space sustainability or consider developing new governance frameworks for various areas of space sustainability, spanning the areas of space traffic management, space debris removal, and space resource activities. He further recommends that the Committee “establish an international mechanism to coordinate the implementation of the proposed regime or governance frameworks.”
In addition, the Secretary-General recommends that:
- Member State develop international norms, rules, and principles to address the security of outer space, with a view to launching talks on “a treaty to ensure peace, security and the prevention of an arms race in outer space”;
- Member States promote inclusive approaches to outer space governance by facilitating the participation of commercial actors, civil society, and others in the work of outer space-related intergovernmental processes; and
- UN entities increase their collaboration and accelerate efforts to advance the equal participation of women in the aerospace sector.
The road ahead
With a new era of space exploration upon us, OCA Policy Brief 7 underscores “our shared responsibility to ensure that existing international space law is fully implemented, and that effective governance is in place to propel innovation and mitigate risks.” Whether or not the multilateral system is up to the task remains to be seen.
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In preparation for the 2023 SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future in 2024, the UN Secretary-General is launching eleven policy briefs between March and July 2023, offering “concrete ideas” on how to advance Our Common Agenda. Timed accordingly, the SDG Knowledge Hub is publishing a series of policy briefs of its own, offering insights on the issue areas covered in these publications.