The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Shenzhou launch
the rise of new space powers, like China, has put strains on the Outer Space Treaty with its origins in the Cold War competition between the US and USSR. (credit: Xinhua)

Back to the future: The Outer Space Treaty turns 40

Renewed interest in the Outer Space Treaty has inspired a range of celebration and lamentation of the agreement’s track record over the past 40 years. Regardless of one’s perspective, the treaty has underpinned the expansion of one of the last great fields of exploration and accomplishment and remains the cornerstone of the governance of outer space. Nonetheless, contemporary challenges threaten the broad goals of the OST. Many of these challenges are reminiscent of the age from which the OST emerged, but they are marked by growing complexity in an era where space has become a way of life. On the fortieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, it is time for dialogue on these challenges, and for a review of the letter, spirit, and application of the agreement. By no means is the OST a panacea for all of our governance challenges, but as our guide in the past it is one of the most important resources for our future.

The OST in 1967

The “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” (1967), or Outer Space Treaty, was ratified at the height of the Cold War to provide the basic legal framework for the international governance of outer space. Launched in the era of intense military competition sparked by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, it enshrines the principle that space is a global commons to be used for peaceful purposes for the benefit of all peoples. Like the Antarctic Treaty before it, the OST is a forward-looking agreement intended to “prevent ‘a new form of colonial competition’ and the possible damage that self-seeking exploitation might cause,” as the US State Department summarized. It was a prudent response to both legitimate fears and legitimate ambitions.

The OST has been the foundation of this expanding use of outer space, but it is increasingly challenged by its own success.

Today, when the use of outer space is commonplace, the objectives of the OST have even greater relevance. In 1967 seven states had satellites in space. Today the number is 47. Space use has expanded tremendously. All around the world people now depend on space capabilities for security, travel, communications, resource management and exploitation, early warning systems, search and rescue, medical services, and entertainment. These activities may not have inspired the imaginations of 40 years ago, but they are central to our way of life in the contemporary space age.

The OST has been the foundation of this expanding use of outer space, but it is increasingly challenged by its own success. Growing threats to the space environment, increasing rivalry between civil space programs, an expanding role for space applications in regional conflicts, and the prospect of new technologies to threaten satellites and other assets in outer space are critical concerns. On the fortieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, its vision for an outer space to which all peoples have access and from which all peoples benefit is both more attainable and more threatened.

Challenge: a more dangerous space environment

Like other environments, space is damaged by human activity, primarily through the creation of space debris. But space is fragile like no other environment. Traveling at speeds of 7.5 km/second, even the smallest piece of space debris can be deadly for spacecraft. While outer space may seem to provide boundless room for operations, the limited availability of suitable orbits coupled with growing contamination threaten sustainable use. In the first six weeks of 2007, the amount of large space debris (larger than 10 cm in diameter) in popular orbits increased by over 20 per cent due to the Chinese anti-satellite test on 11 January and the explosion of a Russian rocket body on 19 February: two of the worst manmade debris-creating events in history.

Although exceptional, these events reinforce a long-term trend of increasing space debris production. More launches, accidental and intentional explosions and collisions in space, and the natural process of debris breakup are contaminating the environment at rates reminiscent of the height of the Cold War. This is an area marked by significant international cooperation, but the challenges remain daunting. Despite landmark guidelines adopted by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) this year, the creation of debilitating space debris threatens to outpace mitigation efforts.

Challenge: strategic competition in civil space programs

At the heart of the OST is the advancement of civil space programs, which have fostered both international cooperation and technical and scientific achievement but also driven geostrategic competition. In recent years, changes in funding and policy priorities of several space programs indicate the growing rivalry in space, particularly in human space flight and lunar exploration. In 2003 China became the third country to launch a human into space, and India has since proposed a human spaceflight program. The US, Russia, Japan, India, China, and the European Space Agency have each announced plans for future lunar exploration.

Military uses of space are no longer restricted to the superpowers. More and more, regional rivalries are being expressed in space with dedicated military or dual-use space systems.

Whether or not these announcements will bear fruit, or if the new space race is real or imagined, the military tensions that drove the first space race cannot be ignored. Cooperation and rivalry in space tend to follow the geopolitical patterns on Earth, and there are indications that strategic partnerships are strengthening. Of note is the relaxation of US trade restrictions on sensitive space technologies to India at the same time that China is working with key allies such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Venezuela. The OST aimed to reduce the potential for confrontation in space, but as the number of players increases and the stakes get higher, it becomes more difficult to manage political and military tensions.

Challenge: space for terrestrial military operations

Since 1967 space has become a way of war as much as a way of life. During the Cold War military rivalry between the US and the USSR, which also threatened the security of space, provided much of the motivation behind the Outer Space Treaty. Today it is possible to see similar tensions between the US and China, although their capabilities in space differ vastly. However, military uses of space are no longer restricted to the superpowers. More and more, regional rivalries are being expressed in space with dedicated military or dual-use space systems. It is believed that much of China’s accumulation of space power is directed at Taiwan, which in turn is suspected of providing its military with images of China from its Formosat-2 research satellite. In the wake of recent missile launches by North Korea, Japan is considering legislation to increase military use of satellite applications and has enhanced access to satellite imagery in the region. While Pakistan aims to develop remote sensing capabilities to support its military, India is moving forward with plans for a unified military space command. A similar expression of regional tensions in space is becoming evident in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and Iran.

While current military uses of space are accepted as peaceful, they increase the risk that actors will target military space assets. In particular, if capabilities in space are not evenly developed then targeting these space assets might become a strategy of asymmetric threat response or deterrence. China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test on January 11 of this year could be seen from this perspective. However, China is not the only state with ASAT capabilities. Russia and the US tested kinetic hit-to-kill ASAT systems during the Cold War and the US has an ongoing kinetic energy intercept program. Moreover, with the spread of missile technologies, more states, including North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan, are developing prerequisite ASAT capabilities to launch a payload into space. Growing regional military tensions in space, exacerbated by the growing sophistication of conventional weaponry technology and the silence of the OST on the issue, increase the risk that force will be used in space.

Challenge: space-based dual-use technologies

The OST focused on weapons of mass destruction, the immediate threat of the time, in efforts to control conflict and the use of force against space objects. Today, the need to protect against the use of conventional force in space is becoming more dominant and more difficult, particularly as the capabilities of space-based technologies advance. On the one hand, newer, more adaptable technologies such as small satellites facilitate more active space system defenses. Small satellites can provide key protection capabilities such as on-orbit servicing, greater maneuverability in space, on-orbit space surveillance, faster hardware replacement, and clusters of defensive satellite configurations. On the other hand, smaller size and greater maneuverability can also support more aggressive activities in space. Small satellites are easy to hide and difficult to detect. They can be discreetly released into orbit and approach other satellites. The potentially destructive capabilities of small satellite technology were demonstrated when NASA’s Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) spacecraft unexpectedly collided with the target satellite during its April 2005 mission.

While several dedicated military space programs in the US are developing a range of defensive and potentially aggressive space-based applications, around the world many similar technologies are advancing through other civil and commercial programs. The challenge lies not only in protecting against these potential threats in space, but also in identifying them. How do we differentiate between a sword and a ploughshare that is thousands of kilometers away in space, and what are the implications of this difficult task?

The OST in 2007

Forty years after the ratification of the OST, space is still free of weapons, the number of states accessing space continues to rise, and the benefits of space applications touch almost every aspect of human life. This accomplishment speaks to the continuing relevance of the OST as the cornerstone of outer space governance. Yet there are environmental, political, military, and technological challenges to this regime. In many ways these challenges are reminiscent of the concerns that initially drove the creation of the Treaty, both to prevent outer space from becoming a battleground, and to prevent colonial competition and damaging exploitation. But technologies, concepts, and geopolitics have developed and changed in 40 years in ways that are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

The OST, while more or less observed, is not engaged, and risks growing stagnant.

Addressing these challenges and the changing security context in outer space requires significant international dialogue. However, the Conference on Disarmament, which is tasked with negotiating international disarmament agreements, including the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, has been stalled on a program of work since 1998. And while the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has recently made progress on space debris guidelines, it has not succeeded in including on its agenda issues related to the militarization of space. Institutional dysfunction and narrow scope direct further attention to the need to reconsider the broad basics of how outer space is governed.

The Outer Space Treaty does not include a formal process for international review. And although it contains provisions for international consultation if a planned event might cause harmful interference to the activities of another state, this provision has not been used. The Chinese did not hold international consultations prior to their anti-satellite test. While the details of US intelligence and actions regarding the event are not public, it would appear that the US neglected to request consultations despite evidence of previous Chinese anti-satellite attempts. The OST, while more or less observed, is not engaged, and risks growing stagnant. After 40 years it is time for a review of the letter, spirit, and application of the OST so that it can continue to guide the international community towards the type of security in outer space that can support the fulfillment of our imaginations.