Insight - Looking back at 2023 and forward to 2024

Thursday, December 7, 2023

As we approach the end of 2023, we look back on a year of news headlines that have reminded us just how fragile peace is, and how terrible a world without peace can be. Peace is not just the absence of conflict, but goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to justice and the resolution of discord by peaceful means. These notions of peace and justice may sound very far removed from what space is all about, but in fact they lie at the heart of addressing the many governance challenges posed by our activities in space, which is a shared domain that is becoming increasingly congested with operational satellites, contaminated by space debris, and contested by rival state and commercial actors. Secure World Foundation’s vision is the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space contributing to global stability and benefits on Earth. 

The idea that we need to think about the Earth’s orbital space as a limited natural resource that must be used rationally and equitably has been gradually gaining in salience over the last ten years or so, but this awareness has literally exploded in the past couple years. In 2023, space sustainability has been a dominant theme in almost all space discourses. This is largely driven by the rapid growth in satellites orbiting the Earth. As of early December 2023, there are now more than 9,200 active satellites in space and “space sustainability” is now understood to be about much more than just avoiding space debris.

Over the past twenty years, Secure World Foundation has been at the forefront of our evolving understanding of space sustainability. There is now a growing understanding of the dangers of irresponsible behavior and armed conflict in space among a much wider group of State and non-State actors, and of the importance of strengthening the rule of law in outer space to ensure that space continues to be a domain for peaceful use and exploration by all nations.  Wherever one looks across this expanding envelope of our evolving understanding of space sustainability, Secure World is there, raising awareness of issues, proposing new ideas, and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogues. 

This year was another record year for the space sector in terms of the expansion of space activities, especially by the private sector. As of December 4, there were 198 orbital launch attempts thus far this year, of which 187 were successful. Launch activity was dominated by the United States (50%) and China (26%). Of these 187 orbital launches, 181 were for the purpose of placing 2,568 new satellites in orbit. Of these new satellites, the vast majority were part of large LEO constellations being deployed by commercial space operators. Six of the orbital launches this year were for human spaceflight. So far this year, 21 humans have orbited the Earth. In addition, there were 24 suborbital space travelers, among them the first persons born in Antigua and Barbuda and Pakistan to fly in space. All of these suborbital travelers were launched into space by the private sector.

The private sector continues to play a leading role in shaping the development of the space arena and, despite the lower levels of investment in 2023 compared to the peak of the space-SPAC frenzy of 2021, the space sector continues to attract significant levels of investment. According to Space Capital, investments in the U.S. space industry dropped 53% to $2.2 billion in the first three months of 2023, but rose again later in the year. Q3 space investments rose 17% year-over-year, pointing to an ongoing appetite among investors to be part of the emerging space economy. 

So, how do we ensure that the space systems and activities resulting from those investments will deliver benefits to all the people on Earth while not degrading the space environment for future generations? This question is what drives our mission at Secure World Foundation. We continue to engage with governments, industry, international organizations, and civil society to develop and promote ideas and actions to achieve the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space benefiting Earth and all its peoples.

From its inception, Secure World Foundation has endeavored to be a convener of multistakeholder dialogues to establish the secure and sustainable use of the space domain for the benefit of all nations. Our flagship convening event for 2023 was the 5th SWF Summit for Space Sustainability, which was held in New York City in June. This was a highly successful event that attracted over 500 in-person and virtual attendees from 49 countries. The event attracted significant media attention and was reported in 15 news publications. We are extremely grateful to all our many sponsors who partnered with us to make this event a huge success. Even as we were organizing the 2023 Summit, we were already looking ahead to 2024, with a view to holding our first Summit in the Asia-Pacific region. In October, we were delighted to announce that SWF and the Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan will co-host the 6th Summit for Space Sustainability on July 11-12, 2024 in Tokyo

During 2023, Secure World Foundation continued to support the development of space governance by building capacity for regulation in emerging space nations in partnership with the United Nations. We continued to produce resources such as SWF’s Global Counterspace Capabilities Assessment that help inform and shape key policy discussions, we started work on a new edition of SWF’s Handbook for New Actors in Space, to be launched in 2024, and are close to finishing a new guide to Responsible Investment in the Space Sector. We published our COPUOS Briefing Book that provides insight into how that critical multilateral forum works, and we were delighted to work with our long-term partner UNIDIR on a Lexicon for Outer Space Security and a Space Security Portal. Several of our key resources have been translated into other languages to make them more accessible to non-English-speaking audiences.

Looking at the space environment, responsible space actors from around the world have been taking collective action for nearly two decades now to minimize the creation of space debris through design and operational measures. The cumulative effects of these actions on the part of many individual actors take years to manifest in the evolution of the debris population, but they can be nullified in an instant through a major debris-producing event, such as an accidental on-orbit collision, or a deliberate debris-producing anti-satellite test. There’s only so much (and in some cases, nothing) that can be done to avoid random collisions of space objects, but deliberate debris creation through anti-satellite testing is entirely avoidable. For this reason, Secure World Foundation was among the first of many civil society organizations to call on the major space powers to agree on a moratorium on kinetic anti-satellite tests in orbit. 

This year marked a noticeable turning point in attitudes to destructive anti-satellite weapons demonstrations in orbit. Previously regarded as an issue of concern to the few major space powers, there are now many more active voices on this issue. In December 2022, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 77/41 calling upon States to commit not to conduct debris-producing direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests in orbit. Such tests produce more long-lived debris than all accidental collisions in orbit to date and pose a great risk to spaceflight safety and the sustainability of space activities. The UN General Assembly also passed General Assembly Resolution 77/42, which calls upon countries to commit not to be the first to place weapons in outer space. Throughout the year, we have engaged with governments around the world and with industry leaders to raise awareness of the value of such non-binding resolutions as a pragmatic measure to protect the space environment from further degradation. As of this writing, 37 countries have made the pledge envisaged in UN resolution 77/41 not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests in orbit and 31 countries have committed not to be the first to place weapons in outer space, as called for in Resolution 77/42. Given the urgency of avoiding debris creation, SWF has been engaging with industry actors to come out in support of an ASAT missile test moratorium. During the second half of this year, a group of 36 industry players from 11 countries issued an industry statement calling for an end to debris-generating anti-satellite missile tests. In 2024, we plan to continue our efforts to promote an ASAT missile test moratorium as an emerging international norm, possibly creating the conditions for a future international legally binding instrument prohibiting such tests in space. 

This general approach towards focusing on behaviors, rather than technologies, is something that has also been gaining traction in multilateral fora. This year saw the conclusion of the United Nations’ Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on the Reduction of Space Threats Through Norms, Rules & Principles of Responsible Behaviors. Regrettably, the working group was unable to reach agreement on a final report. Nevertheless, many delegations found the exchanges during the Working Group sessions very helpful for advancing their understanding of the space security concerns of a wide range of States and they are open to continuing discussions that build on the progress made during this Open-Ended Working Group. 

In November this year, the UN agreed to proceed with two new initiatives. One led by the Russian Federation, is an open-ended working group for the period 2024–2028, to consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument. The other is an initiative led by the United Kingdom, proposed for the timeframe 2025-2026, to build on the work of the recently concluded OEWG on norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior. The adoption of a number of UN resolutions related to space security shows the importance attached to this issue by a growing number of States, but the proliferation of multilateral processes such as the two recently agreed OEWGs also highlights the growing polarization in multilateral space diplomacy. Competing multilateral Initiatives with overlapping mandates are not good for effective multilateralism. In particular, these two processes reinforce the false dichotomy between the legally binding versus non-binding approaches to space security that have bedeviled discussions for years. 

Somehow a way will have to be found to bring these two strands together. It is worth repeating here that SWF views legally binding and voluntary soft law approaches as complementary, not mutually exclusive. Norms have a role to play in helping to create the conditions for later negotiation of binding instruments for space arms control. Secure World Foundation will continue to work with governments and intergovernmental organizations, commercial, and civil society entities to support these important and timely multi-stakeholder dialogues that advance the cooperative governance of space activities and the rule of law in space.

During the year, we welcomed three new members to our team, Seth Walton, Program Associate in the Washington, DC office; Robert (Bob) Pemberton, our Director of Communications; and Eileen Holtry, our Finance Manager. We also bid a fond farewell to Chris Ludwig, who is stepping down as SWF’s Finance Manager at the end of 2023.


Our Priorities for 2024

Looking forward, in 2024, the space community will continue to experience the multifaceted challenges to the sustainability of space activities that have been growing for a number of years, as well as confronting more novel challenges that may arise from close proximity operations in orbit, the deployment of very large constellations of satellites, and the worrying proliferation of counterspace activities. Secure World Foundation will continue to engage with other actors in the United States and internationally on issues affecting the safety, stability, security, and sustainability of outer space activities.

In 2024, we will continue our focus on the following four thematic areas:

1) Cooperative governance of space activities
SWF will contribute to the development and implementation of effective and inclusive governance mechanisms that move the world progressively toward the sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space. We will seek to build common understandings of concepts pertinent to space sustainability and space security. We are also looking forward to publishing a new, updated edition of the SWF Handbook for New Actors in Space in 2024.

2) Peace, stability and safety in outer space
SWF will contribute to improving space security and maintaining space as an operationally safe, predictable, and stable domain through promoting inclusive, informed dialogue and greater transparency among space actors and through promoting policies and behaviors that enhance peace, stability, and safety. This will include a focus on promoting actions that create fertile ground for the further development of a rules-based order in space. In support of such dialogues, we will continue to issue our Global Counterspace Capabilities report in 2024. We will also have a special focus on encouraging more countries to commit to moratoriums on destructive ASAT missile testing in space.

3) Sustainable and prosperous uses of outer space
SWF will contribute to the development, promotion, and implementation of operational practices and policies that support the responsible, prosperous, and sustainable uses of outer space that benefit Earth and all its peoples. In 2024, we will focus on building connections among different regulatory communities and with the finance and insurance communities to promote responsible investment in space activities. We look forward to issuing a guidebook on responsible investment in the space sector.

4) Space activities in support of human and environmental security on Earth
SWF will contribute to the development of policies and practices aiming at more widespread and effective use of space assets and data to support improved human and environmental security.


In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our many valued partners and event sponsors, all our event participants, and our research collaborators for a very productive 2023. We wish you all a relaxing holiday season and we look forward to working with you in 2024 to promote the sustainable, safe, and peaceful long-term use of outer space in support of human and environmental security on Earth.

Last updated on December 7, 2023