The dangers of anarchy in space

I can’t think of a more dramatic illustration of how reckless actions in space put all at grave risk than Russia’s recent anti-satellite (ASAT) test blowing up one of its own defunct satellites and creating a cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of space debris.

Even small pieces of debris, when traveling at some 17,000 miles per hour, can cause horrific damage to satellites, disrupting the space infrastructure that is the nervous system of modern life. Moscow’s test forced astronauts (including its own cosmonauts) on board the International Space Station (ISS) to take emergency safety measures for fear of collision. Moscow’s test followed a similarly dangerous Chinese ASAT test in 2007, and a U.S. ASAT test (though designed to minimize debris) in 2008.

All this reflects a troubling anarchy in the cosmos, a militarization of space, one ill-conceived aspect of unrestrained arms racing, the pathology of this era of great power competition. Space junk is inadvertent, but satellites that can kill or disable satellites and cyber jamming highlight the military risks. The anti-space antics also reveal the mutual vulnerabilities that should spark a rethink of current policies in the interest of self-preservation.

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Why? For starters, there are currently 4,550 operating satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) from some 80 nations, though roughly half are U.S. commercial and government/military satellites. They are essential for everything from nuclear command and control and climate monitoring to GPS, the internet, streaming video and ATMs.

Moreover, an already crowded Earth orbit is getting more so. The private sector has entered the space business with new technologies enabling the miniaturization of satellites, called Cubesats, some no bigger than a shoebox. Google, Amazon and Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan to launch some 50,000 such satellites in this decade.

These are all at risk from 27,000 pieces of space debris, tracked by the Department of Defense’s impressive Space Surveillance Network (SSN), as well as by some half a million smaller pieces, the size of marbles. With both satellites and debris traveling at roughly 17,000 miles an hour, collisions could be catastrophic.

Yet there is a paucity of rules governing behavior in space, which, like sea, air and cyber, are global commons. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the one accord signed by all major space-faring nations, 197 nations in all. They agreed to the principles in the OST, which says:

 “Exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. and shall be the province of all mankind.” 

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In the real world, the treaty is sadly outdated by both technology (as ASAT tests demonstrate) and geopolitics, as the U.S., Russia and China plan Moon bases and private sector firms plan to exploit minerals on asteroids, for starters. In this era of populist nationalism and major powers competing for dominance, fashioning new regimes or codes of conduct for space appears highly problematic.

But there are arenas of strategic competition and arenas for cooperation. Some would argue for cooperating only with democracies or like-minded actors. There are some areas – like technology sharing – where this makes sense. But nations cooperate, pooling risks and burdens when they perceive that their interests intersect. The threat of space debris to all nations’ vital economic and national security assets in space would seem one such instance. DOD's space surveillance network is the premier mechanism for monitoring space junk. Russia has some orbital monitoring capacity, but few other states do.

Moreover, the U.S. already has space sharing agreements with over 100 nations to provide data and notifications to avoid collisions. The U.S. gave a heads-up to China about such risks during the Obama administration, according to well-placed sources. In addition, private sector firms and start-ups in Japan and Europe are exploring ways of getting rid of space junk. There is money to be made, and I’d hazard a guess that the engineers at Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosFree speech, Whole Foods, and the endangered apolitical workplace Space: One important thing that might retain bipartisan focus Virtual realities may solve Fermi's paradox about extraterrestrials MORE’s Blue Origin and Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bald eagle comeback impacted by lead poison Tesla puts Cybertruck production on hold until early 2023: report MORE’s Space X might be interested in a public-private partnership.

All this points to possibilities for new collaboration on space junk, great power competition notwithstanding. No need for formal United Nations (UN) bureaucracies. There are only a handful of space-faring states — the U.S., Russia, China, EU, Japan and India. The U.S. is well positioned as first among equals to launch an ad hoc coalition of space powers to pool resources and (non-national security sensitive) capabilities to better monitor, clean up space debris and seek mutually acceptable codes of conduct and rules for such activities.

It would be faster and cheaper if the space-faring states, pooling resources, invited private sector bids for contracts to help rid the lower Earth orbit of dangerous space junk. Share the burden and the benefits. 

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There are various ways to start such an initiative, none mutually exclusive. President BidenJoe BidenCarville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Sullivan: 'It's too soon to tell' if Texas synagogue hostage situation part of broader extremist threat MORE could call a space-faring nation summit; the five permanent members of the UN Security Council could give it a mandate or perhaps a G-7 call to action.

Such globally cooperative ventures may seem counterintuitive in an era of seething nationalism, as we have seen in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are signs of more vaccine cooperation. Certainly, the domain of space has been largely a free-for-all. Even with the one emblem of successful space science collaboration, the International Space Station (ISS), the agreement between the respective space agencies of the U.S., Russia, EU, Japan and Canada appears to be coming undone. Instead, it should be renewed, and why not invite China to join as a test of its intentions?

The urgency of solving the shared problem of universal menaces like space debris could serve as a reminder that there are such things as global commons. The U.S. has long prioritized that notion, of unimpeded freedom of navigation in the maritime domain. It may be a lose-lose to turn space into a Wild West scramble among nationalisms. 

Similarly, whether it is China, Russia or the U.S., unbridled quests for dominance in space are not likely to end well. Space has a troubling governance deficit and a need for rules, guardrails and codes of conduct. Putin may have done the world a favor if the potentially devastating impact of space junk to all on the planet leads to new self-serving efforts at problem solving.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.