Insight - Maximizing the Sustainability of Growing Space Activities

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

By SWF Technical Advisor, Brian Weeden

The space domain is currently experiencing a rapid increase in the number and diversity of actors involved in space activities. More than 70 States, commercial companies, and international organizations currently operate nearly 1,400 satellites in Earth orbit, which together provide a wide range of socioeconomic benefits. The increasing number of satellites is driven largely by the commoditization of space technology and the lowering of barriers to participate in space activities.

The growth in space actors is primarily focused in two areas: States and start-up companies. Although nearly all States rely on space capabilities in some capacity, most have historically relied on services provided by other States. Today, an increasing number of States are building and operating their own satellites for a variety of reasons, including national pride, to foster science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, or to kick-start their own commercial space sector. At the same time, billions of dollars in public and private capital are flowing into dozens of space start-up companies. Some of these start-ups are bringing new innovation and expanding capabilities to existing commercial space sectors, such as communications and remote sensing. Others are trying to build commercial markets in launch services, human spaceflight, and exploration, which historically have been the domain of governments. And still others are looking to break new ground and develop space capabilities that have only been dreamed about in the past. The expansion in commercial space activities is also forcing governments to re-think existing national policy and regulatory mechanisms for how they provide oversight of their non-governmental actors.

The increased availability of space technology and capabilities has both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it is leading to greatly increased innovation, lowering of costs, and greater access to beneficial satellite services for everyone. However, the growth and diversification of space activities and the influx of new actors has the potential to exacerbate many of the current challenges to the long-term sustainable use of space, including: on-orbit crowding, radio-frequency interference, the proliferation of space debris, and the chances of an incident in space sparking or escalating geopolitical tensions and conflict on Earth.

In order to help address these issues, SWF is currently developing a Handbook for New Actors in Space. The goal of the Handbook is to provide both new governmental and non-governmental space actors with a broad overview of the fundamental principles, laws, norms, and best operational practices for peaceful, safe, and responsible activities in space. By doing so, we hope to maximize the positive benefits and minimize the potential negative consequences of the growth of new actors. This will help ensure the long-term sustainable use of space so that humanity can continue to derive the many benefits space activities have to offer for the foreseeable future.

Over the last year, SWF has worked with governments, satellite operators, academia, and civil society to develop the content of the handbook. In June 2015, we held an initial workshop to discuss the handbook outline and the topics that should be included to provide a comprehensive overview of important issues. The Handbook addresses these topics  in three chapters: the international framework for space activities, national space policy and administration, and responsible space operations. In May 2016, we held a second workshop to discuss the draft text of the handbook, and received feedback from representatives of our target audience on how well it meets their needs.

Throughout the summer of 2016, SWF will continue to work with its Advisory Committee and external experts to refine the Handbook. We hope to be able to publish it soon in both print and electronic formats, and we are in discussions with several potential partners to help us distribute it throughout the international space community. In addition to strengthening the foundational knowledge of all space actors, we hope the Handbook will also help spark future conversations on how to ensure that space can remain safe, secure, and sustainable for the continued beneficial use by all humanity.

Last updated on November 3, 2016