Insight - Norms of Behavior In An Increasingly Commercialized Space Domain

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

By Ian Christensen, Project Manager

Change is the operative word in the space sector today, as uses and users of space diversify. New actors, technologies, and applications are changing the way in which society interacts with, operates in, and benefits from the space environment. Since the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950’s, space has gradually shifted from a domain dominated by two superpowers, then broadened through civil, security, and scientific utilization, to a now multi-user environment with commercial, academic, civil, and security benefit. As the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, Douglas Loverro, writes in a recent edition of The Space Review:

…[S]pace has moved from being solely the means by which two superpowers warned of, guarded against, and executed nuclear war, to an internationally vibrant and expanding economic nexus, a means for conducting routine national security and military missions, and an interconnected infrastructure that literally empowers the way of life of the earthbound citizenry who depend upon it.

This change has accelerated in recent years and will continue to do so. Driven by reductions in cost, commoditization of electronics, increases in computing power, and mass market uptake of information and communications technologies, the commercial use of space is increasing – and doing so in innovative ways that challenge traditional approaches to operations. In particular, the use of cubesat and smallsat systems in constellation architectures has significantly increased in recent years, and is forecast to continue to do so. Based on currently announced plans, more than 16,000 private-sector satellites are planned for launch in the next decade – dwarfing the approximately 1,500 satellites that are currently operating. Over the next decade the commercial sector will become the dominant player in the space environment.

This wave of commercial development has been supported – indeed enabled – by a mostly predictable and stable international space governance regime supported by international norms and principles. However, the increasingly commercial character of the space domain presents the need to develop norms of behavior that reflect that character and that might inform changes to space governance frameworks.

The term “norm” is commonly used in sociology, where it refers to the set informal understandings that govern the behavior of members of a society, and in international relations where it refers to the set of accepted appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity. Norms are useful tools to moderate or influence behavior in the absence of laws and regulations (for example – stand on the right, walk on the left on escalators in the U.S.). Norms are often (but not always) codified into law (for example – drive on the right in the U.S.). SWF staff have published and presented on the concept of norms in the space sector in several venues.

In a commercial context, there are several factors that might cause industry to act to develop norms of behavior. These include: increasing the sustainability of their own business models by fostering a stable and predictable operating environment (“rules of the road”); allaying competitive concerns that disruptive approaches might unduly impede existing users; and preempting or informing the need for government regulation. Efforts to develop norms of behavior for commercial operations might also tie into broader Corporate Social Responsibility strategies, as a socially responsible business practice that reinforces business models.

As innovative commercial space business concepts continue to mature and develop, there are a number of areas where efforts to develop norms and shared principles for operators may be fruitful. Examples in which SWF has been active include:

  • Rendezvous and Proximity Operations:  Activities that include close physical approach and operations between multiple space objects, such as active debris removal (ADR) and on-orbit servicing (OOS). In April 2017, SWF held a workshop to discuss the basic principles, key issues, and opportunities to be addressed in order to ensure that ADR activities develop in a safe, responsible, and transparent matter. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the process of standing up an industry-led organization, the Consortium For Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), to develop a consensus set of  technical standards and principles to “encourage responsible on-orbit commercial servicing operations.” In 2012 and 2013 SWF hosted a series of workshops in Brussels, Singapore, and Washington, DC, to foster dialogue within the international space community regarding sustainable on-orbit satellite servicing.
  • Cubesat Operations:  SWF has been involved in facilitating dialogue around industry best-practices for cubesat operations in several areas, including space situational awareness and tracking; launch deployment, and post-mission disposal.
  • Large Constellation Operations: Current plans in the commercial sector to field multiple large constellations to provide remote sensing and communications services offer the potential to greatly expand space-based applications and benefits to society. At the same time, these new constellations, and the possible interactions between them, have raised concerns in the community about their possible impacts on the long-term sustainability of the space environment. Several operators have made public statements providing a commitment to responsible practices in managing these constellations. As the deployment and operations phases for these large constellations approach, there is an opportunity to further develop these commitments through the creation of shared industry operations principles, norms, and best practices.

There are several means – or methods – by which industry-led norms of behavior might be developed. Industry trade associations have published consensus statements on best practices in some areas – such as the Satellite Industry Association’s (SIA) 2015 White Paper on Responsible Space Operations and the 2016 joint statement of SIA and the Global VSAT Foundation (GVF) on Core Principles for Cybersecurity – which might provide the basis for further development. Some industry actors have suggested the development of self-regulatory organizations (SROs) in key areas of satellite operations. Formal consortia, such as CONFERS, for specific areas represents another model.

Efforts linked to norms of behavior are also underway at the multilateral government level – for example the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) long-term sustainability guidelines, which aim to publish a set of voluntary “best practices” for space sustainability. There is need to ensure that activities at the government level and industry initiatives remain complementary. Venues such as the UN High Level Fora: Space as a Driver for Socio-Economic Sustainable Development and the UNISPACE +50 event in June 2018, which will help set the future COPUOS agenda, provide a channel to support this coordination. As the shift towards greater commercialization of the space domain continues, SWF will utilize our position at the nexus of commercial and multilateral space governance discussions to advance and support efforts to develop industry norms for safe and responsible commercial space operations.

Last updated on September 5, 2017