After Jeff Bezos, the richest person on the planet, blasted off to the outer reaches of Earth’s orbit amid several global crises, he blithely told reporters that “we can move all heavy industry and all polluting industry off of Earth and operate it in space.” Unless there is an unfathomable technological leap, cowboy hat-clad Bezos’ idea of offloading all of humanity’s industries to space is not going to happen anytime soon. But as billionaires like Bezos look to harness the riches beyond Earth’s atmosphere, they’re likely to export our environmental problems as well.
Since the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 in 1957, humanity has placed over 11,000 satellites into orbit—and the rise of webs of networked satellites, so-called mega constellations, is making Earth’s surroundings increasingly crowded and dangerous. The best known of the networked satellites is perhaps SpaceX’s Starlink, which aims to expand to around 30,000 satellites to ensure internet connectivity. Other players include OneWeb and Amazon’s Kuiper, and countries like China are also stepping into the ring. Recently, Rwanda—which has a nascent space agency—notified media that it’s going to be launching over 300,000 satellites.
Given the high speed of objects in space, any collision could create thousands more pieces of debris—a cascading effect known as the Kessler syndrome. Earth is circled by a cosmic junkyard of derelict satellites, debris, and countless other human-made objects, from errant nuts and bolts to flecks of paint.
And the problem is getting worse. According to Jacques Arnould, a theologian and head of Ethics at French space agency CNES, the sustainability of the space environment became part of the discussion among space law experts about 15 years ago, in part due to space no longer being rarified air. Although it was once solely the domain of governments, private companies are going into space—and hoping to make oodles of money while doing so. Therein lies the rub. “There have always been crazy projects and ideas of space activities, but now there are private companies that can really make them happen—and this is a game changer,” adds Martha Mejía-Kaiser, an International Institute of Space Law member from the Autonomous National University of Mexico.
Treating our orbit like a junkyard presents all sorts of hazards. “My concern and fear is that in 20 years it will be very dangerous to go to space because of the pollution,” says Ram Jakhu, associate professor and acting director of McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law. “Anybody who’s jumping up and down because they want to go to travel in space has to start thinking about what happens there [in terms of debris].” The trash heap left in space doesn’t just threaten the future of space activities; like climate change on Earth, it's a sign of humans polluting and abusing a common resource—in this case, the space environment. If we keep dumping junk in space, we’ll continue feeding into this Space Age “tragedy of the commons.”
To be clear, space is not exactly the Wild West. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty—the Magna Carta of space law—set out a framework and key principles to guide responsible behavior in space. Negotiated and drafted during the Cold War era of heightened political tensions, the binding treaty largely addresses concerns during a time when apocalypse was a much more imminent threat than space junk. For one, it prohibited the deployment of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. Four other international treaties exclusively dealing with outer space and related activities followed. These include the Liability Convention of 1972, which establishes who should be accountable for damage caused by space objects, and the Moon Agreement of 1979, which attempts to prevent commercial exploitation of outer space resources, like mining resources to set up lunar colonies.
Today, what have now become run-of-the-mill space activities (think plans to launch constellations of hundreds to tens of thousands of satellites or even ambitious proposals to extract resources from near-Earth asteroids) are beholden to rules drawn up at a time when such activity lay in the realm of science fiction.
The governing documents surrounding space law are vague when it comes to many of the scenarios now cropping up, and the Moon Agreement has too few signatories to be effective. As a result, private space companies today can look at the foundational half-century-old Outer Space Treaty and the four agreements that followed and reinterpret them in ways that could favor their bottom line, according to Jakhu. For instance, efforts to mine asteroids have been buoyed by the argument that, according to the Outer Space Treaty, governments can’t extract natural resources from an asteroid and keep them—but private companies can. (At best, the granddaddy of space treaties provides no clear answer on the legality of mining asteroids.) Because private companies prioritize making money, “the basic rules of outer space need to be expanded, built upon, and enforced.”
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Efforts have been made to address this problem. Regulatory bodies like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and experts from governmental, non-governmental, and commercial space have gotten together to hash out the building blocks for new governance to address current gaps in space law. Given the flurry of outer space activity in recent years, UNOOSA has drafted some widely accepted guidelines for debris mitigation and long-term sustainability. (The guidelines suggest safe debris mitigation, removal practices, and overall good behavior, such as advising that all space objects be registered and tracked and that 90 percent of them be removed from orbit by the end of their mission.) These—like most efforts to address policy gaps in space law—are “soft law,” or a non-binding international instrument that no one is under any legal obligation to comply with. Still, some nations—like the United States, China, and India—have incorporated norms from international legal principles for good behavior in space into their national legislation for licensing space activities.
Multinational initiatives led by individual space-faring countries, such as the recent US-sponsored Artemis Accords, signal an alternative route. Named for NASA's Moon-bound human-spaceflight program, they are general guidelines for nations to follow as they explore the Moon—namely, be peaceful, work together, and don't leave any junk. Yet the Accords have not yet been signed by key US allies and space partners, like Germany and France. Meanwhile, a concrete path to an international agreement could come soon. In the first week of November, representatives from the UK proposed that the United Nations organize a working group—the first step in treaty negotiations—to develop new norms of international behavior beyond Earth.
But as humanity expands into space, current space law—without supplemental legislation—is ill-equipped to address the challenges of today. For example, the American regulating body for satellites, the Federal Communications Commission, has consistently accommodated commercial space actors. It recently received a flood of nearly 100,000 applications for satellite constellations, feeding concerns about the practice of throwing stuff up into orbit without consequences. The FCC is even reconsidering its recommendation to remove dead satellites within 25 years after they cease functioning—a time frame regulatory agencies aren’t eager to enforce anyway. That’s why private companies are largely self-regulated and their claims to do so should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. Emerging space legislation needs to put firm regulations in place for all actors in order to address the scope of the space pollution problem, according to Jakhu.
Arnould, from the French space agency, points to the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group, which started putting together building blocks in 2019. He took part in a discussion in which experts agreed that emerging space law should consider commercial incentives and resource rights and promote participation by all countries. By bringing in different stakeholders, new governance in space could be more widely accepted and see greater compliance.
Moreover, experts stress that emerging space law should consider “adverse changes in the environment of the Earth” and “harmful contamination of celestial bodies and outer space,” expanding on some of the tenets enshrined in the the Outer Space Treaty for modern-day activities.
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One important move would be to unequivocally affirm space as a global commons where all parties—be they governments or private companies—must adhere to the same principles. “There needs to be a common utilization and management of space, as we do now around the Earth,” Arnould said. That could be a tall order, if efforts to draft international agreements on Earth, like talks at this year’s COP26 climate convention, are anything to go by. Setting up a body of technical experts, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, could also be a step toward addressing the most pressing challenges in space while establishing consensus.
In response to Bezos’ lofty proclamation about moving all polluting industries to the cosmos, Jakhu says it mirrors the way we deal with pollution in our own earthly abode. “[It reminds me] of what governments on Earth have been doing, dumping their waste in Third World countries. Humans are going to be behaving exactly the same, or even worse, in space as they have been doing on Earth,” Jakhu said. “We’ve polluted the Earth left, right, and center. We will be doing the same thing in space. There has to be a wake-up call or things are going to be serious.”
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