Managing Risk and Liability in Space – Part One

Just as our planet has experienced a major explosion in population, so too have the most valuable satellite orbits surrounding the Earth. 

These orbits have been taken over by a massive increase in the number of satellites, as well as a rise in both radio frequency interference and space debris.  This increased crowding, and the growing economic and military dependence on space, has led to a need for new or different rules for defining responsible behavior in this already-crowded frontier.

This is the first of two posts in which I will highlight the key issues involved in the debate over ‘space governance’ and ‘space traffic control.’ This post examines some of the new ideas that governments are considering for managing risk and liability in space. The second installment will highlight concrete actions taken by the private sector to combat crowding in space and radio frequency interference.

At the dawn of the space age, the United Nations helped set out the ground rules for space activities.  These basic rules ran along the lines of space being open to all; no space-based weapons of mass destruction; and that countries should not interfere with the other nation’s space objects.  These rules are still respected by all nations today. 

In the 1990’s, as increased activity led to concerns about space debris, technical experts gathered in the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) and developed a set of technical and behavioral guidelines. Key IADC concerns included preventing the fragmentation of space objects, removing space objects from working orbits after their useful life, and limiting the release of objects during launch and normal operations.

Today, the space-faring countries of the world are engaging in a complex discussion regarding the rules or guidelines for managing the future of the space environment.  A group of European nations have been promoting a broad set of principles referred to as the “Code of Conduct for Space.”  Similarly, the new U.S. space policy, calls for the development of international “transparency and confidence building measures” (TCBMs) to promote "responsible and peaceful behavior in space."  

The space environment is clearly experiencing a rapid transition.  Though, it is still unclear what steps countries and the international regulatory community should take in response.  U.S. and European officials seem to be taking prudent steps in initiating a broad, international dialogue about the management of the space environment while declining to suggest specific bureaucratic or international regulatory solutions. 

Earth orbit is no longer the exclusive province of government satellite systems.

Consequently, a new approach to enhancing the safety and efficacy of the space environment is required to complement the groundwork established by nation states over 50 years ago.  Next week, I will highlight key solutions to these challenges.

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