Space Sustainability

Context: India must contribute towards drawing up an international space resource management framework that balances competing objectives in pursuit of the use of outer space for peaceful purposes. 

What is outer space?

  • From the perspective of an individual on Earth, outer space is a zone that occurs about 100 kilometres (60 miles) above the planet.
  • Outer space is the expanse that exists beyond Earth and between celestial bodies.
  • Outer space is not empty but contains a low density of particles (predominantly a plasma of hydrogen and helium) as well as electromagnetic radiation, magnetic fields, neutrinos, dust, and cosmic rays.
  • The Karman line at an altitude of 100 km above sea level, is conventionally used as the start of outer space in space treaties and for aerospace records keeping.
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What are the related agreements and conventions?

  • The Outer Space Treaty (1967): Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
  • The Rescue Agreement (1968): Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
  • The Liability Convention (1972): Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.
  • The Registration Convention (1976): Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
  • The Moon Agreement (1984): Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Outer Space Treaty (1967): The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies forms the basis of international space law.It prevents any claims of national sovereignty and permits all states to freely explore outer space.It entered into force on 10 October 1967. As of August 2023, 114 countries are parties to the treaty including the US, Russia, China, and India.Key Prohibition:Prohibits placing of nuclear weapons in space.Limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only.

Establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.Exclusion:It does not ban military activities within space, military space forces, or the weaponization of space, except the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.It is mostly a non-armament treaty and offers insufficient regulations to newer space activities such as lunar and asteroid mining.

What are Global commons?

Traditionally, “global common” is used to define those parts of the planet that fall outside the sovereignty of any state. The term is used typically to describe supra-national and global resource domains in which common-pool resources are found. The UN identifies four “global commons”, namely the high seas, the atmosphere, Antarctica and the outer space.

In the absence of an authoritative definition, “global commons” could be viewed from two lenses. First rooted in geopolitical or military relevance – it is not surprising that security establishments across the world recognise domains beyond the national jurisdictions, including the high seas, the air space outside territorial bodies of a state, and outer space, as vital connecting channels for the international order.

Others recognise outer space as a vital operational domain for keeping their nation safe while upholding international law. 

Second, “global common” is viewed based on the economic and commercial implications of shared resources, which could be overused by some at the expense of others, regardless of national jurisdiction. “Commons” is seen as constraining because it is associated with notions of shared ownership, public governance or limitations on use.

What are the associated issues and why there is a need for better governance of outer space?

  • Outdated space laws: Space laws do not have a dispute settlement mechanism, are silent on collisions and debris and offer insufficient guidance on interference with others’ space assets.
  • State-centric legislation: The legal framework is state-centric, placing responsibility on states alone. However, non-state entities are now in the race for commercial space exploration and utilisation. Some states are providing frameworks for resource recovery through private enterprises as it is not expressly forbidden for non-state actors. E.g., According to NASA, the asteroid named 16 Psyche is so rich in heavy metals that it is worth $10,000 quadrillion. So, there is a risk of starting a race for mineral exploration among both state and non-state actors. 
  • Misuse of strategic position: Reliance of militaries on satellite systems means that space assets become potential targets. E.g., Satellite constellations are commercial but governments can use their data to monitor military movements.
  • Increased space debris: The issues of overcrowded and congested space are becoming real. The Kessler syndrome, where a collision between two space objects could set off a cascading chain reaction, cannot be dismissed. Given the speed at which space objects travel—around 17,000 miles an hour—any collision between two objects in space could set in motion a disastrous turn of events with more and more collisions, creating an unmanageable amount of space debris.
  • Technological advances: Although on Earth, natural resources are being exhausted, many of them are present on celestial bodies, including asteroids, in enormous quantities. Technological advances have made it possible to mine even space.
  • Role of space in meeting sustainable development goals: Space applications and technology directly and indirectly prevent and reduce poverty, for example, through disaster monitoring and response – and through supporting other Sustainable Development Goals. Earth observation data is used to improve coffee quality and productivity in Timor-Leste, increasing the revenue of coffee growers. Satellite data are essential for mapping and monitoring natural and protected areas, fishing vessel tracking and navigation, monitoring illegal fishing, assessing marine and coastal health and identifying algal blooms. Land surface monitoring, biodiversity monitoring, the monitoring of poaching and smuggling routes, deforestation, forest fire risk, vegetation health and the protection of endangered species all benefit from space-derived data. 
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What is the concept of space sustainability?

Space sustainability is the concept to use outer space for peaceful purposes and socio-economic benefits to meet present needs without compromising needs of future generations. 

Initiatives on Space Sustainability: 

Indian: Project NETRA by ISRO to monitor space debris to aid planning on protecting space assets. IS4OM platform to aid Space Situational Awareness by providing accurate information on on-orbit collision, fragmentation, hazardous asteroids, space weather forecast etc. 2+2 dialogue between India and U.S. for monitoring space objects.

Global: UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, 2019 adopted 21 voluntary, non-binding guidelines to ensure long-term sustainability of outer space activities.Summit for Space Sustainability– global summit focused on developing solutions for space sustainability.  Space Sustainability Rating by World Economic Forum to score sustainability of spaceflight operators to encourage responsible behaviour in space. 

Source: The Hindu

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