Maneuvering Towards Space Sustainability
Key takeaways from a FP PeaceGame on strengthening partnerships to mitigate risks in the cosmos
Space activities are accelerating at a rapid pace, ushering in a range of opportunities for humanity while posing new global challenges in sustainability, security, and governance. Of over 6,700 operational satellites in space, 88 percent are in low Earth orbit (LEO), 84 percent of which serve commercial purposes. In the next decade, 70,000 to 100,000 more satellites are expected to be launched. Furthermore, there are currently over 30,000 pieces of tracked space debris larger than 10 cm. A single one could destroy an entire satellite upon collision, costing millions of dollars in damages and potentially posing a threat to human life in space and on Earth. Recognizing that deepening international, cross-sectoral partnerships will be vital to mitigating risks and harnessing opportunities in space, Foreign Policy partnered with Amazon and the Net Zero Space Initiative to host a simulation during the 2023 Paris Peace Forum.
Bringing together leaders from governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, civil society, and academia, the simulation allowed participants to stress-test responses to some of the most pressing challenges facing space exploration. Participants were presented with a research-based, fictional scenario consisting of a scene-setter followed by three moves, which presented cascading challenges to human life and international governance in space and on Earth. The simulation featured a potentially harmful collision in LEO and underscored the downstream impacts that such a collision or associated avoidance maneuvers could have on human life in orbit and on Earth.
Assigned to relevant public, intergovernmental, and private-sector roles, over the course of the simulation participants grappled with key governance questions, requiring them to game out strategies to ensure future sustainability, safety, and security in space. The simulation was held under Chatham House Rule. This summary distills key takeaways from the plenary discussions during which participants presented their positions and proposals:
Life on Earth is increasingly dependent on space-based assets and capabilities, making measures to ensure space sustainability urgent for public and private operators alike:
- Participants stressed the need for strengthening preparedness based on data-informed approaches, considering the high stakes for life on Earth in the event of a catastrophic event in space, which could severely hamper broadband and telecommunications; navigation; weather, climate, and natural resource monitoring; defense capabilities; and even global finance.
- Space systems need to be safeguarded from cybersecurity risks and acts of sabotage, including from non-state actors who may try to exploit security weaknesses. Participants recommended developing minimum standards and best practices regarding cybersecurity of satellites and called for greater attention from, and coordination among, policymakers and space-related operators to that end.
- Participants noted that the UN’s Space Sustainability Guidelines represent a useful tool for collision prevention and response, in particular relating to debris mitigation and monitoring and end-of-life disposal, and therefore should be leveraged to support decision-making among stakeholders.
Strengthening data transparency, trust, and exchange is essential for collision risk mitigation:
- Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data are the products of different inputs and algorithms, which space operators may keep confidential for proprietary or national security reasons. Confronted with a potential collision, participants emphasized the need for greater transparency on SSA. They also called for public-private exchanges and partnerships to build trust in SSA data across different states and companies. Such partnerships could build on and enhance existing SSA-sharing programs, such as the Department of Defense SSA Data Sharing Program and the European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking Program, enabling greater communication with actors involved in different programs, and encouraging public-private information-sharing.
- Risk-tolerance thresholds vary by actor, which in turn impacts the planning and implementation of risk mitigation maneuvers. This lack of standardization can present coordination challenges for operators in the face of crises. Participants acknowledged that more dialogue and mutual understanding of risk-tolerance thresholds—including how they are calculated and the practical implications of differences across operators—are needed to strengthen preparedness and response capabilities.
- Identifying the right points of contact across public and private space operators can be complicated but is critical to sharing information in a timely manner, especially in the face of deteriorating circumstances, to enable relevant parties to make time-sensitive decisions and take appropriate actions.
- In discussing collision-avoidance strategies, participants highlighted the need to establish rules of the road for coordinating maneuvers among active satellites, such that mutually agreed procedures are in place before a crisis emerges.
Harnessing multilateral forums can help facilitate international coordination and consensus on space cooperation:
- Multilateral agencies, including the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), have an important role to play in convening relevant stakeholders, facilitating dialogue, and supporting coordination and cooperation among states, including emerging or nascent spacefaring states and those that may be in competition or conflict with each other.
- The role of multilateral agencies is especially important in times of crises or heightened geopolitical risks but also crucial to continually ensuring that existing international policies, treaties, and norms are respected while discussions on new agreements and protocols are pursued as necessary. To that end, participants pointed to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) as a key resource.
Bolstering international policy frameworks and non-binding mechanisms will be critical to stewarding sustainability and resolving disputes in space:
- Participants evoked international agreements, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 Liability Convention, but acknowledged that these were developed decades ago, prior to the rapid privatization and commercialization of space.
- Participants noted that existing international agreements should be complimented by best practices, guidelines, and other mechanisms to cover the full range of risks posed by emerging technology to space security and sustainability, and to adequately address the roles, rights, and responsibilities of private space operators.
- While the majority of participants agreed that new or updated guidelines, frameworks, and mechanisms are necessary to keep pace with developments in space, the question of whether there should be additional legally binding international frameworks was debated.
- Those who argued for non-binding agreements noted the slow speed at which international legal frameworks are developed and adopted, and advocated for generating non-binding norms to ensure short-term safety while the international community works on binding mechanisms.
- All participants agreed that widespread buy-in from relevant actors—including private-sector companies, emerging spacefaring nations, and more established actors in space—would be critical to the effective implementation of any new frameworks and mechanisms.