The United Nations Could Finally Create New Rules for Space

The proposal to create a process for preventing military confrontations and misunderstandings in orbit would be the first major step in more than 40 years.

1/17/2022 9:46:00 PM

Diplomats from the UK proposed that the UN create a process for preventing military confrontations and misunderstandings in orbit. It is the first major step in developing space rules in more than four decades. (From 2021)

The proposal to create a process for preventing military confrontations and misunderstandings in orbit would be the first major step in more than 40 years.

. Even tiny bits of untrackable space flotsam can be harmful, because they’re moving at high speed. Bruce McClintock, lead of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corporation, a federally financed and military-focused research center based in Santa Monica, California, notes that, on Earth, tornado winds can jam pieces of straw into telephone poles. “Now imagine you’re at orbital speeds, and you have something the size of a paint chip moving at thousands of miles an hour. Those are things that can cause serious damage to satellites,” he says.

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India in 2019 . Even tiny bits of untrackable space flotsam can be harmful, because they’re moving at high speed. Bruce McClintock, lead of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corporation, a federally financed and military-focused research center based in Santa Monica, California, notes that, on Earth, tornado winds can jam pieces of straw into telephone poles. “Now imagine you’re at orbital speeds, and you have something the size of a paint chip moving at thousands of miles an hour. Those are things that can cause serious damage to satellites,” he says. That’s a major reason why Aaron Boley, a planetary scientist and cofounder of the Outer Space Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, calls for banning tests of weapons that can destroy satellites. “Having a ban on debris-generating anti-satellite tests is an area where I think there could be wide agreement,” he says. His institute published an open letter on September 2 making the case for such a ban, with signatories from multiple countries. A ban on tests that generate “long-lived debris”—shrapnel that stays in orbit for years instead of falling and burning in the lower atmosphere—might have a more realistic chance of being adopted, McClintock argues, though he’s sympathetic to the argument in the Outer Space Institute’s letter. To avoid collisions or attacks between satellites, which would also likely produce debris, experts frequently cite the Incidents at Sea agreement between the US and the former Soviet Union, which was signed in 1972. The accord mandated more communications between the two countries and required ships, including those engaging in surveillance, to remain clear of each other to avoid collisions. “It didn’t change the size and structure of naval forces, but brought in rules for notifications for exercises,” says Jessica West, a senior researcher at the research institute Project Ploughshares based in Waterloo, Ontario. Giving satellite owners prior warning and requesting consent to approach would go a long way, “so that they don’t freak out, and they don’t worry, and they don’t respond to what you’re doing in an escalatory way because your intention is simply to do an exercise,” she says. In a sign that the US is moving toward supporting norms in space, the Defense Authorization Bill , which has passed in the House but not yet in the Senate, requires defense officials to develop a list of priorities for such norms, including those involving the issues of space debris and how spacecraft should behave in close proximity with one another. In July, US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin published a memo identifying “tenets of responsible behavior” in space along similar lines. While nonbinding norms clarifying allowable behavior could reduce tensions, the approach isn’t without its drawbacks. “If you focus on behavior, but you allow this proliferation of hardware and technology, at some point you have an arms race. So are you making an arms race safer, or are you preventing an arms race?” West asks. Despite the possible shortcomings of the approach, Steer says it’s a realistic one, given where international relations are today. “We can come up with very effective nonbinding norms, which have huge political impact, and they impact what states are doing with their national binding laws,” she says. “Treaties can take years or decades to negotiate, and we just don’t have time.” More Great WIRED Stories