Unwanted close encounters in Space

Equal access rights now needed for Space as well

Politics

January 23, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Unwanted close encounters in Space

China is building Tiangong Space Station that will be its permanent habitat in Space

As Space becomes increasingly overcrowded, it is also becoming more and more unfair. It may be time to institute quotas and limits to ensure that not just all nations, but indeed all humans have equal access to the Space.

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Last month, China lodged a vocal protest at the United Nations against the United States, accusing its multi-billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX of irresponsible and unsafe behaviour in the Space on multiple occasions. China said that the manoeuvres by SpaceX had brought it perilously close to the Chinese Space Station, Tiangong, forcing China to take evasive actions, seriously interrupting its own work on the ambitious station that is expected to be ready as a permanent Chinese habitat up in the skies.

China has been working at a breakneck speed to achieve its ambitious target of completing the work on the space station before the end of the current year, well in time for President Xi Jinping to inaugurate his third term as China’s leader.

Days before China’s undesirable close call with the American SpaceX, it was the US that was complaining about a Russian military exercise that involved blowing up a satellite in orbit, saying that its debris was spread in too large an area and with too many pieces large enough to harm other spatial objects.

Elon Musk’s Space X is one of the latest and sizeable entrants in the Space business. It aims to launch 12000 satellites in constellation to provide global coverage of communication, among other services, besides launching missions in the Space and eventually to the Moon for the state-owned NASA. Fierce rival of SpaceX is Blue Origin, owned by another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, which is also fighting to establish itself as the leader, at least in the US, for all things spatial.

The list of private entrepreneurs, aiming to carve out a piece of Space for themselves, their companies or their customers is long and is getting longer by the year as yet more ambitious persons from other nations join in. Meanwhile some of the governments of even smaller nations, but with deep pockets, have set up their own Space missions.

All told, an unprecedented number of small satellites are set to be launched by various actors between now and 2030, posing a serious threat of overcrowding, at least in the low earth orbit, where most of the communication and other civilian use satellites are positioned.

Greedy for Space

A live satellite orbit visualisation captured on December 1, 2021. A string of SpaceX Starlink satellites can be seen crossing the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. (Photo/CelesTrak)

While Space is big enough and even bigger than the most ambitious human’s imagination, most of the interest right now is in a limited area, close to the Earth orbit, leading to an overcrowding of the area, which already has thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of satellites, debris of older satellites, rockets and other human-made objects that have been circling the Earth in the same orbit for decades and will continue for very long time due to near-total absence of friction in the area, which otherwise would have caused them to burn out and fall back to the Earth.

This belt around the Earth is certainly to be even more cluttered in the near future as hundreds of satellite launches are scheduled around the world over the next few years. Until now it has been first come, first served or finders keepers policy in the Space, without any global regulation on how the Space would be utilised. Little wonder then that barely only the rich or the militarily and politically important countries have established their presence in the space, with a vast majority of the 193 members of the United Nations being literally banished from the Space.

Of the 3372 active satellites in Space, as of January 1, 2021, over half, 1897 belong to the US, 412 to China, 197 to Russia and the rest is shared by the world. Taking historical figures, of the 24943 human made objects in the orbit, US, former USSR members, China, UK and Japan account for a bulk. Barring Algeria and South Africa, no African nation has a satellite, even a token one, up in the space and of course none of the small island developing states (SIDS).

With rising launches, more incidents like SpaceX or Russian test are likely due to an overcrowding of Space and moreover, it is likely to leave the smaller and poorer countries out of the contention from using Space for their own purposes for a long time, if not forever as other nations and private firms carve out chunks for themselves.

It is high time that the Outer Space Treaty of the UN got some regulatory teeth and controlled the number of launches that a country can have, and that figure has to include all the satellites launched by governments, private companies, universities or NGOs in that country. Perhaps, under the aegis of the UN, the global community could agree on a quota earmarking exclusive rights to Space for either individual countries or regional multilateral bodies like ASEAN, EU, Arab League, African Union and the SAARC.

Alternatively, since the wherewithal for Space research and exploitation is currently restricted only to a few nations, the world community could also discuss and work towards a treaty governing the use of Space and how to distribute the benefits of any such research or spatial activity fairly to all the countries.

Just as there is a treaty, even if only partially effective, about regulation of the exclusive economic maritime zones for each nation, it is important to have a similar restrictions imposed for the Space and ensure that it is protected for posterity and every single human, rather than allowing rampant and uncontrolled colonisation by those who can afford to or who have the capabilities today. Space, just like the atmosphere, belongs to every living being and it is important to ensure that everyone has equal and fair access to it.

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