Space diplomacy

The United Arab Emirates has launched the first-ever Arab interplanetary mission to Mars. Luxembourg has its own space programme. A few hundreds satellites, owned by the private company SpaceX, are in Earth orbit providing the internet in a few dozen countries around the world.  More than ten space tourists have been to space transported by the private company Virgin Galactic. The only thing you need is to apply for it on their website.

As of today, more than 70 countries in the world have some kind of space programme, and a dozen companies are having or planning to have some kind of ‘business’ in space. The value of the space industry is estimated at 350 billion dollars.

The question is, are we in a new race in space in which companies are also participating, or even winning? Are there any rules and laws? Who monitors the enforcement of these rules? Are we historically in the phase of conquering orbit and nearby celestial bodies as the New World and the Wild West used to be? What about the governance of orbit and space.

See more: Space diplomacy – old geopolitics or new frontier collaboration

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Stakeholders and actors

There are four categories of actors in the field of space technology and research: governments, (inter)national space agencies, private companies, international organisations. 

World governments are stakeholders even if they are not involved in any space programme. The global impact of future space research and exploration will be great. In a positive way, this process will improve global knowledge and value, and in a negative way, it could ruin the local environment of different celestial bodies, increase space debris in orbit, or even start a war. 

Governments that have their own space programmes or are part of some of them will have the opportunity to run the development of space exploration and to improve their own knowledge and technologies.

(Inter)national space agencies are motivated to be faster in their own battle for space discoveries and to gain as much new funding as possible for their projects. Space run is a matter of prestige, but much more a matter of new opportunities, new territories outside the Earth, new materials and minerals to be found, as well as knowledge.

The private sector in space activities

The number of private companies in the field of space technology is estimated at around tens of thousands. Some of them are engaged in satellite launch or manufacturing, some in propulsion and engine technologies, and some in future space services. 

Today, after almost 15 years since the launch of the first private-owned rocket, we have companies capable of launching into orbit and bringing back reusable spaceships, or sending commercial ships with passengers to space … Some of them make launchers, small and nanosatellites. The number of private satellites in lower orbit is a few hundred, and they are visible even in the sky every night.  

What could be future space projects?

The most common commercial use of space technologies will be tourism programmes, which will lead to the development of better and more economical spacecrafts. The biggest challenge is better autonomy of space crafts and automotive mechanical processes (they may be run by AI). 

These space projects will go in two directions – research and colonisation. The Moon, Mars, asteroids, giant planets will be the missions of these space programmes. Some new space telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will explore deep space or our galaxy. The technology of transforming ice or some minerals from the Moon or Mars will be used to produce rocket fuel or to create earth-like conditions for human crews in potential base camps.

International outer space law

In 2022, we celebrate 55 years of the first international law on space – the Outer Space Treaty. However, only 111 countries have signed this document by which humanity has decided that the celestial bodies must be used only in the common interest and for peaceful reasons. However, there are no rules for using the rest of space (between celestial bodies).  

The treaty specifically prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons anywhere in space.  What about conventional weapons or some new hi-tech weapons?

Four other treaties have been adopted to reinforce the framework set by the Outer Space Treaty: the Rescue Agreement of 1968 (requiring states to assist astronauts in emergencies), the Liability Convention of 1972 (liability for damage caused by space objects), the Registration Convention of 1975 (all objects launched into outer space must be registered with the United Nations), and the Moon Treaty of 1979.

Five sets of principles have been established to support international law in this field: the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (1963), the Principles Relating to International Direct Television Broadcasting (1982), the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth (1986), the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space (1992), and the Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (1996).

The only international organisation dealing with space is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). It was initially formed as a small expert unit within the United Nations Secretariat to service the Ad Hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, established by the General Assembly in its resolution 1348 (XIII) of 13 December 1958. Today it works to help all countries, especially developing countries, access and leverage the benefits of space to accelerate sustainable development. We work toward this goal through a variety of activities that cover all aspects related to space, from space law to space applications.

The end of 2021 brought some new international activities in the field of space regulations. The UN General Assembly First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) decided to start working on preventing an arms race in outer space, in November 2021. An open-ended working group was established to assess threats to space operations, determine irresponsible behaviours, ‘make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours’, and ‘contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments’ – including a treaty to prevent ‘an arms race in space’.

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