May 15, 2021, 6:00 a.m.
Last week the entire globe looked nervously to the sky, waiting for the uncontrolled re-entry into the booster phase of the Long March 5B rocket in Beijing, launched on April 29th from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China, to a module of the planned to deliver the Tianhe space station. While the likelihood of space debris hitting a populated area is always low, the likelihood is above zero – and it has happened before. This time we were spared a misfortune. China's missile debris re-entered the Indian Ocean and splashed down a few hundred miles west of the Maldives on Sunday. The gravity of the situation remains, however. A similar uncontrolled incident, which lasted a long March 5, was followed by reports that rocket debris had hit buildings in Ivory Coast. Fortunately, no casualties were reported.
These incidents underscore the urgency to develop international standards and regulations that address the dynamics sparked by the growing list of government and commercial actors operating in both space and near-earth orbit. According to Jonathan McDowell, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, China could have engineered the Long March 5B to remain on a suborbital trajectory or to have engines designed to control the missile's re-entry location. These practices have been used by other space programs such as NASA to drastically reduce the likelihood of harm to humans.
With space activity growing at a rapid pace, controlling the trajectories of spacecraft and their subsystems is not only an urgent problem for people on the ground, but also vital in slowing the rapid accumulation of decommissioned so-called space debris that orbits the earth. If this option is not checked, thick fields of debris created by colliding and breaking apart pieces of spent spacecraft can pose a dangerous obstacle to space exploration – and threaten a new era of space travel once it begins.
Similarly, the rapid deployment of satellite internet service providers – like Elon Musk's planned Starlink program with its fleet of small satellites – not only raises legitimate concerns about the spread of space debris. These man-made mega-constellations, if left unregulated, could also hamper ground-based astronomy by compromising the performance of telescopes that scientists rely on to understand the origin and history of the universe, to study astrophysical phenomena, and after to seek the building blocks of life in other solar systems. Geopolitical competition between Western satellite internet providers (including Starlink, Amazon Project Kuiper, and a similar European Union-led project) and systems launched by authoritarian states (including China's planned StarNet constellation) could make today's debate about 5G rivalry possible look quaint in comparison.
These questions extend into a deeper space where new alliances are emerging. China and Russia have agreed to jointly build a base on the moon in order to reject the NASA-led Artemis agreement on lunar development. If the United Arab Emirates can launch a satellite into orbit around Mars within days of similar missions to the US and China as it did in February, what other midsize nations will also push for their share?
Washington will not unilaterally decide the answers to these questions. But it can lead the global discussion, starting with a call to review and update space diplomacy and international law. These efforts must begin with the revision of the 1967 Space Treaty, which was ratified by 111 countries, including the United States, Russia and China. The agreement was based on the previously negotiated Antarctic treaty system and was intended to prevent "a new form of colonial competition" in space. It took ten years to reach an agreement. The treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, on a celestial body or anywhere else in space. It restricts the use of planets, moons, asteroids and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and prohibits their military use. However, the last few years have shown that the Open Space Treaty fails to address important concerns.
Now is the time to reaffirm, through the mechanism of the United Nations, the commitment of the signatories to the treaty's fundamental provisions. Just signing up would create a more positive environment to tackle more contentious issues such as: B. the notification of activities that could interfere with peaceful use and exploration. New procedures to do this would strengthen the network of mutual reassurances, reduce future tensions and eliminate potential points of conflict.
Space diplomacy would also include what is known as the 1979 Lunar Accord, which the United States, Russia and China have not ratified, which deals with resource exploitation and hostile actions on the moon. The agreement would have obvious uses for Mars or another celestial body. Currently, resource use is not regulated. For example, there are no procedures to regulate the activities of private companies, including those engaged in mining or other commercial activities on the moon or elsewhere. Perhaps these activities were all but unthinkable when the lunar agreement was developed in the 1970s. This is all the more the reason why it should be revised urgently.
For example, China has already announced that a goal of its Cheng space program is to mine the lunar surface for helium-3, an isotope that is limited on Earth but abundant on the Moon. The commodity could be a key fuel for future fusion energy technologies. Failure to create regulatory standards that take account of these goals could have far-reaching implications for energy geopolitics in the 21st century. Neither does the treaty specifically prevent a country's military from placing, installing, or using conventional weapons on celestial bodies. We can assume that the US space force will soon be followed by the creation of space-based military programs by other countries that will test the space treaty.
We've been here before: Six centuries ago, European trips to the Western Hemisphere and the ensuing competition for resources sparked wars too numerous to count and change the world's power configuration. This story could easily repeat itself if its lessons were ignored. No single government or company can define the future of space. International diplomacy needs to be supported by science and technology practitioners who play an active role as the next phase of space policy is worked out. Otherwise, the Biden government's proclamation that "the people chose science" loses its meaning.
Space diplomacy must now anticipate these challenges. United States space diplomats – along with science and technology practitioners – would be well placed to conduct this much-needed global dialogue. Before these issues lead to open conflict, diplomacy and science should be used to develop measures to regulate resource use, guide military deployment to ensure defensive deterrence while avoiding escalation, and the reach of space exploration for the benefit to expand humanity. If we are to keep pace with the rapid advancement of space exploration and meet the urgent need for global agreement, diplomacy must shape the future, not wait to respond to future crises. The United States and the world's multilateral institutions can and should take this step in 2021.