The Final Frontier

Outer Space Security & Governance

In 65 years since the first satellite was launched, mankind has evolved from having no presence in outer space to developing a dependence on space assets to power the global economy, support military operations, and further innovation.

In a rapidly digitizing world that is reliant on digital infrastructure, space systems are vital to governments, businesses, and our everyday lives. Space-based assets and data play critical roles in human and national security, touching everything from communication and intelligence to navigation, weather forecasting, monitoring climate change, and disaster mitigation.

As governments and private actors seek to capitalize on the strategic and commercial benefits of space, the domain is becoming increasingly congested and contested. There are 77 countries and multinational organizations today owning and operating satellites, alongside a rapidly growing number of commercial entities similarly engaged in space exploration.

illustration of a orbiting satelite

Since 1957, over 12,870 objects have been launched. 4,852 satellites currently orbit Earth, 60 percent of which are operated by the U.S.

illustration of an office building with a satelite dish attached to the roof

Over 10,000 space technology companies, 150 research and development associations, and over 100 launch companies are active globally.

illustration of a group of satelites orbitting earth from space representing GPS services

A widespread outage of GPS service, while unlikely, could have an estimated economic impact of $1 billion per-day to the U.S. economy.

illustration of a rocket launching from a launchpad

The global space economy will be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040.

However, existing regulatory frameworks have been unable to adapt to evolving challenges and hold accountable those who jeopardize safety and security. The potential for future conflicts in space, or for conflicts on Earth to spill into space, is intensifying as a range of actors develop counterspace weapons, such as laser beams, jamming, surveillance, and anti-satellite capabilities that could incapacitate systems on Earth, or worse.

Amid growing concerns of a space arms race, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) warns that “the destruction, damage, or incapacitation of one or more objects in space, even if temporary, could have serious reverberating effects for militaries and civilians alike.”

The Final Frontier: Outer Space Security & Governance is a powerful tool for policy influencers, decisionmakers, and others seeking to better understand global space governance, including as it relates to military, diplomacy, industry, and humanitarianism.

Key Takeaways

  • Space is a key enabler of all economic and security activities.

    Space plays an essential role in our everyday lives, from enabling security systems, satellite imagery, and internet connectivity to supporting mobile banking and telecommunications and monitoring agriculture production and climate change.

  • Space is an increasingly congested and contested domain, presenting security and sustainability challenges.

    Evolving space capabilities, declining costs, and relatively low barriers to entry have made the space domain and its associated weapons, tools, and technologies increasingly accessible and powerful. China, Russia, India, and the U.S. have conducted anti-satellite weapons tests and there are signs that there may be additional countries exploring or already possessing latent anti-satellite capabilities.

  • States are no longer the only dominant space actors.

    With lines among civil, commercial, and military space blurring, commercial actors are playing a greater role during times of conflict, as evidenced by firms providing satellite imagery, communication, and internet services in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, regulations vary across jurisdictions, leaving firms to largely self-regulate their activities. At present, there are no efforts to coordinate how they may be governed on a global scale.

  • Greater multistakeholder collaboration on space is needed.

    The growing use of space for military purposes, alongside enhancements in cyber and electronic warfare, underscores the imperative to establish clear rules of engagement and enforcement mechanisms to mitigate emergent risks in the space domain.

This Power Map includes a glossary feature developed exclusively for FP Insider, which defines the key terms used throughout the report. To view definitions, touch on the terms that are underlined in gray.

A 1978 illustration depicts a variety of existing and future satellites, various types of space stations, and astronomical observatories, highlighting that orbital debris must be more carefully considered as space becomes more crowded.

A 1978 illustration depicts a variety of existing and future satellites, various types of space stations, and astronomical observatories, highlighting that orbital debris must be more carefully considered as space becomes more crowded.Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Key Trends and Issues in Space

Four Trends and Issues Defining the Final Frontier

When the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit in 1957, it marked a turning point in the “Space Race” between the Soviet Union and the U.S. against the backdrop of the Cold War. From 1957 to 1990, the two countries accounted for 93 percent of all satellites launched into space, with about 70 percent of their launches for military satellites. Today, the world has become dependent on space systems beyond military uses, relying on space-based services and data to support the global economy and daily life. However, space is a fragile environment, threatened by natural occurrences, such as space weather and human activities, which can generate debris and harm space systems. The proliferation of space actors and new technologies heightens risks to space safety and stability and requires more sophisticated and agile regulatory guardrails.

Emerging Spacefaring States

The current situation:  Countries are increasingly seeking to establish autonomous capabilities to access, operate, and benefit from space activities. Seventy-seven countries and multilateral organizations have at least one satellite orbiting Earth. Nine countries and one regional organization (the European Space Agency) possess launch capabilities. Given the growing presence of space objects in orbit and the entry of new space actors, effective space traffic management (STM) is vital to ensure safe space operations. International STM standards and best practices are necessary, but regulatory progress has stalled due to limited consensus on the content of regulations alongside technical challenges, such as information sharing, data format standardization and integration, and limited object maneuverability in space. Footnote 1

What’s at stake: With more actors developing and deploying new technologies and space systems, competition over the Moon, space resources, and limited orbital slots, such as cislunar Lagrange points, risks the potential for collisions between objects and for conflict in space or for terrestrial-based conflicts to extend there, particularly among great powers. As the world’s dependence on satellites grows, the obstruction or degradation of space-based services could result in severe economic and security losses. Maintaining access to space is critical, particularly for developing countries, which generally do not have the financial or technological means to deploy their own space systems but rely on space-based assets for crucial services.

Graphic 1

Total Number of Objects Launched into Space

Space exploration is expanding—from a select few spacefaring nations to a diverse set of public- and private-sector actors that are pursuing ambitions of varying scale.

Note: Figures include satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecraft, and space station flight elements launched into Earth’s orbit or beyond. Source: The UN Office of Outer Space Affairs via Our World in Data

Privatization of Space

The current situation: Technological innovations, decreased launch costs, growing availability of space hardware, and increased government support for their domestic commercial space industry has prompted the so-called “New Space Revolution.” Commercial space activity skyrocketed from $110 billion in 2005 to $357 billion in 2020. In 2020, commercial activity accounted for 80 percent of the $447 billion global space economy. Private firms are also increasingly supporting and, in some cases, replacing, government projects in space and becoming leaders in space exploration. For instance, U.S.-based firms SpaceX and Axiom Space are building a commercial space station to replace the International Space Station by 2030.

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