On November 15, 2021, Russia used a missile launched from the surface of the Earth to destroy one of its own outdated satellites, resulting in a vast debris cloud that threatens several space assets, including personnel aboard the International Space Station.
This occurred just two weeks after the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee explicitly recognized the critical role of space and space assets in international efforts to improve the human experience — as well as the dangers that military actions in space pose to those aspirations.
The United Nations First Committee is concerned with disarmament, global issues, and threats to world peace. It passed a resolution on Nov. 1 that establishes an open-ended working group.
The group’s objectives are to assess current and future threats to space operations, determine when behavior is irresponsible, make recommendations on possible norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior, and contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments, such as a treaty to prevent a space arms race.
Outer space is not a lawless void. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which has been ratified by 111 countries, governs space activities. The treaty was negotiated during the Cold War, when only the Soviet Union and the United States had spacefaring capabilities.
While the Outer Space Treaty lays forth broad principles to govern nations’ actions, it lacks specific “road rules.” The pact essentially guarantees all humans the right to explore and use space. There are only two caveats, and a slew of holes appear right away.
The lack of specific definitions for “peaceful objectives” and “due regard” in the treaty is a serious issue.
The treaty’s vague military constraints give plenty of room for interpretation, which might lead to conflict.
While no direct military combat has yet occurred in space, nations’ efforts to demonstrate their military superiority in and around space have increased. The most recent example is Russia’s test. China tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, resulting in a massive debris cloud that is still generating difficulties today. As recently as November 10, 2021, the International Space Station had to avoid a piece of that Chinese test.
Similar demonstrations in the United States and India were significantly less disruptive in terms of debris, but they were met with disapproval by the world community.
The new United Nations resolution is significant because it initiates the establishment of new responsible behavior norms, regulations, and principles. If done correctly, this may go a long way toward providing the safeguards needed to avert space conflict.
Since 1959, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has been addressing space activities.
The 95-member committee’s mission, on the other hand, is to encourage international collaboration and research legal issues related to space exploration. It lacks the ability to enforce the 1967 Outer Space Treaty’s principles and guidelines, let alone compel actors to engage in negotiations.
The newly formed working group must meet twice a year in both 2022 and 2023, according to a United Nations resolution passed in November 2021. While this is a slow pace compared to commercial space growth, it is a significant step forward in global space policy.