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The Crisis in Space

Falling rocket debris, space junk crowding the skies, and unregulated resource competition make this the hour of space diplomacy.

By , a fellow in the Rethinking Diplomacy Program at Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies, and , an astrophysicist and project development scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020. Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

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Last week, the entire globe nervously gazed skyward, awaiting the uncontrolled reentry of the core booster stage of Beijing’s Long March 5B rocket, which had been launched from China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center on April 29 to deliver a module of the planned Tianhe space station. While the probability that space debris strikes a populated area is always low, the chance is above zero—and it has happened before. This time, we were spared a calamity. China’s rocket debris reentered over the Indian Ocean and splashed down a few hundred miles west of the Maldives on Sunday. But the seriousness of the situation remains. A similar uncontrolled incident involving a Long March 5B was followed by reports that rocket debris had struck buildings in Ivory Coast. Mercifully, no casualties were reported.

These incidents underline the urgency of building out international norms and regulations addressing the dynamics unleashed by the growing list of government and commercial players active in both deep space and low earth orbit. For example, China could have engineered the Long March 5B to remain on a suborbital trajectory or equipped with thrusters designed to control the rocket’s reentry location, according to Jonathan McDowell, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. These practices have been utilized by other space programs like NASA to dramatically lower the probability of endangering humans.

With space activities growing so rapidly, controlling the trajectories of spacecraft and their subsystems is not just a pressing concern for people on the ground, it is also crucial in slowing the rapid accumulation of disused so-called space junk orbiting around the Earth. If left unchecked, thick fields of debris created by spent spacecraft parts colliding and breaking apart could pose a dangerous obstacle to space exploration itself—and imperil a new era of space travel just as it begins.

Last week, the entire globe nervously gazed skyward, awaiting the uncontrolled reentry of the core booster stage of Beijing’s Long March 5B rocket, which had been launched from China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center on April 29 to deliver a module of the planned Tianhe space station. While the probability that space debris strikes a populated area is always low, the chance is above zero—and it has happened before. This time, we were spared a calamity. China’s rocket debris reentered over the Indian Ocean and splashed down a few hundred miles west of the Maldives on Sunday. But the seriousness of the situation remains. A similar uncontrolled incident involving a Long March 5B was followed by reports that rocket debris had struck buildings in Ivory Coast. Mercifully, no casualties were reported.

These incidents underline the urgency of building out international norms and regulations addressing the dynamics unleashed by the growing list of government and commercial players active in both deep space and low earth orbit. For example, China could have engineered the Long March 5B to remain on a suborbital trajectory or equipped with thrusters designed to control the rocket’s reentry location, according to Jonathan McDowell, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. These practices have been utilized by other space programs like NASA to dramatically lower the probability of endangering humans.

With space activities growing so rapidly, controlling the trajectories of spacecraft and their subsystems is not just a pressing concern for people on the ground, it is also crucial in slowing the rapid accumulation of disused so-called space junk orbiting around the Earth. If left unchecked, thick fields of debris created by spent spacecraft parts colliding and breaking apart could pose a dangerous obstacle to space exploration itself—and imperil a new era of space travel just as it begins.

Similarly, the rapid deployment of satellite-based internet providers—such as Elon Musk’s planned Starlink program with its fleet of small satellites—not only raises legitimate concerns over the proliferation of space junk. These man-made megaconstellations, if they remain unregulated, could also hobble ground-based astronomy by interfering with the performance of telescopes on which scientists rely to understand the origin and history of the universe, research astrophysical phenomena, and hunt for the building blocks of life in other solar systems. Meanwhile, geopolitical competition between western satellite-based internet providers (including Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and a similar project led by the European Union) and systems launched by authoritarian states (including China’s planned StarNet constellation) could make today’s debate over 5G rivalry look quaint in comparison.

We’ve been here before: Six centuries ago, European voyages to other continents and the ensuing competition for resources set off wars too numerous to count.

These questions extend into deeper space, where new alliances are emerging. China and Russia have agreed to jointly build a base on the moon in an apparent rebuff to the NASA-led Artemis Accords for lunar development. If the United Arab Emirates can place a satellite in orbit around Mars within days of similar U.S. and Chinese missions, as happened this February, which other mid-sized nations will also push to get their share?

Washington will not unilaterally decide the answers to these questions. But it can lead the global discussion, starting with a call to reexamine and update space diplomacy and international law. That effort must start by revisiting the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ratified by 111 countries, including the United States, Russia, and China. The agreement drew on the previously negotiated Antarctic Treaty System and was designed to prevent “a new form of colonial competition” in space. Ten years were required to reach agreement. The treaty prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in earth orbit, on a celestial body, or elsewhere in outer space. It limits the use of planets, moons, asteroids, and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and prohibits their military use. But recent years have shown that the Outer Space Treaty fails to address important concerns.

Now is the time, through the United Nations mechanism, to reaffirm the commitment of the treaty’s signatories to its basic provisions. Just the act of recommitting would create a more positive environment to address more contentious issues, such as providing notice of any activity that might interfere with peaceful use and exploration. New procedures to do so would strengthen the network of mutual assurances, lower future tensions, and remove possible points of conflict.

Space diplomacy would also include the so-called Moon Agreement of 1979, which the United States, Russia, and China have not ratified, and which deals with resource exploitation and hostile acts on the moon. The agreement would have obvious applications for Mars or any other celestial body. At the moment, resource exploitation remains unregulated. No procedures exist, for example, to govern the activities of private companies, including those engaged in mining or other commercial activities on the moon or elsewhere. Perhaps these activities were all but unthinkable when the Moon Agreement was developed in the 1970s. That’s all the more reason it should urgently be revisited.

China, for example, has already announced that one objective of its Cheng’e space program is mining the lunar surface for helium-3, an isotope found in limited supply on Earth but in abundance on the moon. The commodity could be a key fuel for future fusion energy technologies. Failing to create regulatory norms addressing these aims could well have far-reaching consequences for the geopolitics of energy as the 21st century progresses. The treaty also does not specifically prevent any country’s military from placing, installing, or using conventional weapons on celestial bodies. We can expect that the U.S. Space Force will soon be followed by the creation of space-based military programs by other countries, putting the Outer Space Treaty to the test.

We’ve been here before: Six centuries ago, European voyages to the western hemisphere and the ensuing competition for resources set off wars too numerous to count and upended the world’s configuration of power. That history could easily repeat itself if its lessons go unheeded. No single government or company can define the future of space. International diplomacy must be supported by practitioners of science and technology taking an active role when the next phase of space policy is crafted, otherwise the Biden administration’s proclamation that “the people have chosen science” loses its meaning.

Space diplomacy must anticipate these challenges now. The United States’ space diplomats—joined by practitioners of science and technology—would be well placed to lead this much-needed global dialogue. Before these issues lead to open conflict, diplomacy and science should be used to fashion measures regulating resource exploitation, manage military use to provide defensive deterrence while avoiding escalation, and expand the reach of space exploration to benefit humanity. If we are to keep up with the rapid advancement of space science and meet the urgent need for global agreement, diplomacy must shape the future and not wait to react to future crises. The United States and the world’s multilateral institutions can and should take that step in 2021.

W. Robert Pearson is a fellow in the Rethinking Diplomacy Program at Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies, a former director general of the U.S. Foreign Service, and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Benjamin L. Schmitt is an astrophysicist and project development scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, and a fellow in the Rethinking Diplomacy Program at Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies.

Tag: Space

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