To make Outer Space safe for space faring nations US, allies working on a defined set of rules

Anti-satellite weapon tests; Space Debris which is cluttering the Earth Orbit and most significantly proliferation of satellites. (ESA)

The US and its allies are in the process of drafting language in support of an international effort to adopt Rules of Behavior in Space, which is expected to make space not only safe but sustainable too. The United States supporting a defined set of rules for space faring nations to adhere to is a positive move; however, it will not be easy, opine experts. According to reports, officials from the US Department of State and Defense are drafting language on the US position on a resolution which was approved in December 2020 by the UNGA. This resolution is focused on seeking “norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors” in space.

The countries are expected to submit their input by May 3, 2021 which will be included in a report to be reviewed by the UNGA later this summer.

Concerns leading to Rules of Behavior in Space

Anti-satellite weapon tests; Space Debris which is cluttering the Earth Orbit and most significantly proliferation of satellites. Another major concern is safety, which arises out of the fact that there are going to be more human flight missions to Space.

Background

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty remains the basis for international space law. However with more and more countries getting involved in space operations, there is a need to make changes as the treaty is now outdated.

While the 1967 Treaty bans the use of weapons of mass destruction in space, there are few countries which are reportedly deploying dual-use spacecraft and these can be used for both military and peaceful purposes.

This is an urgent need for transparency. Why? Because the countries that send dual-use spacecraft to orbit will then have to disclose the purpose of that deployment.

What is the December UN resolution?

This was originally proposed by the United Kingdom and it focuses on curtailing irresponsible or potentially threatening activities. It also talks about reducing the risks of misunderstandings and miscalculations. The US, along with the UK is working with a broader coalition that includes countries like France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.

Experts share their views with Financial Express Online

Carter Palmer, I&M Analyst, US based Forecast International Inc., says “From what I gather, the main purpose of these rules is to avoid the weaponization of space and in doing so make the area beyond our atmosphere usable to all. Indirectly, these measures would mitigate space debris thus making space a safer place to operate.”

“The idea of getting an international consensus on what is allowed and what is banned in space is ambitious. China, India, Russia and the United States have all tested some form of ASAT system (Anti-satellite weapon). If a war were to break out, there is no reason to doubt satellites might become targets. War on this level would essentially close space for some time, making everyday life different and likely difficult for people. Some sort of regulation is therefore needed to keep space open,” Mr Palmer opines.

“ASAT weapons exist but their use should not be taken for granted,” he says.

In his view, “Regulation is not impossible; I compare it to nuclear weapons’ treaties such as the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty). Wars have been fought without nuclear weapons usage since 1945; ASAT weapons could be viewed in a similar way in regards to regulation.

Regulations that can be agreed on by all though will be difficult, the INF treaty was pertinent to the geo-political situation at the time of signing in 1987 but that situation has changed. Furthermore, that treaty was between the two then superpowers and not the whole world. In order to create an international treaty, all countries with ambitions in space will have to agree to keep space peaceful.”

In conclusion Mr Palmer says, “The whole world agreeing to anything is a difficult proposition and forward thinkers from all countries will have their work cut out for them. A treaty or agreement will likely take some time.”

Sharing his views, Washington DC based, Christopher Johnson, Space Law Advisor at the Secure World Foundation, says, “It has been a long time coming to come around to the realization that some good basic rules for peaceful activities in space are needed, and needed sooner rather than later.”

“I think the UK was pragmatic in stepping forward with their proposal, probably thinking that, well “somebody needs to suggest something”. And the right approach is to work on space security topics piece-by-piece, and on what is achievable, rather than try to come up with a huge, all-encompassing treaty, because nobody will be able to finalize a huge treaty and many states will try to fit everything into a huge treaty,” Mr Johnson, who is also a space law educator at Georgetown Law and the International Space University.

According to him, “So, having some basic rules about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in space can only be good for everyone, because it will give predictability to actors in the space domain, and they know what to expect of others. They can plan ahead. And, if bad actors don’t adhere to the rules, at least others can point to some clear rules to show they have been broken.”

“Because with absolutely no specific rules on many emerging activities, like space debris and space traffic management, there are currently no clear rules on what is bad behavior, and everyone stands to suffer because of it,” Mr Johnson concludes.

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