Daily recap: Space: the next frontier? Preserving the global commons at a time of increased rivalry

Event Reports

Peace, Security & Defence

Here is your recap of the third and last day of Friends of Europe’s Security Summit

Wednesday 25 November

Space the next frontier? Preserving the global commons at a time of increased rivalry

Space-based assets are vital for our economies and high-tech societies, but the space close to our planet is increasingly congested and contested by governments and more recently by private companies. In the Friends of Europe debate on ‘Space the next frontier? Preserving the global commons at a time of increased rivalry’, held online on 25 November 2020, a panel of four experts assessed what Europe and the wider world are doing to enhance space cooperation and to modernise regulation, including space treaties drafted five decades ago.

Fifty-eight countries have space capabilities and assets, and the private sector is moving into this domain fast, said Dharmendra Kanani, Director of Insights at Friends of Europe, and moderator of this event. But now there is also more space junk than operational satellites. 05:23 – “Space has become a geopolitical, security, defence and peace matter that we must urgently address – and not repeat the errors we have made on Earth.” He was keen to discuss ways of ensuring space policy is handled progressively and intelligently, and ensuring it is seen as a good resource for the whole planet and humanity.

08:56 – “Europe has a 50-year tradition of developing space infrastructure… so it has an extra concern about what happens there and ensuring its space assets like Galileo and Earth Observation satellites are cared for,” said Pedro Duque, Spanish Minister of Science and Innovation and former astronaut. He added that space around our planet is more crowded now, hence the need for extra investment in space awareness systems.

Other key points made by Duque:

  • It’s difficult taking European decisions on space security: strategic decisions by technical bodies like the European Space Agency (ESA) can be “cumbersome, long and not transparent”, as they are guided by 22 member states.
  • Europe can play a central role in space issues globally.
  • The space treaties are too generic, posing a problem for today’s space operators.
  • The US Space Act 2015 massively boosted private sector involvement in launches.
  • Reasonable regulation is the best solution for new space technology.

21:48Tanya Harrison, Planetary Scientist, part of the team of the Mars Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, noted the many upsides of Earth Observation (EO) data, from weather reports to GPS on a smartphone, plus downsides that include potential loss of personal privacy.

“A decade ago, space launches were mostly controlled by governments. Now industry can build and launch their own mega-constellation of satellites with limited regulation by government.” She called for updates to regulation in this area, after noting a near collision last year between an ESA satellite and a Space X Starlink spacecraft. “There is no regulation on who should move the satellite!” added Harrison. EO companies create blacklists that spell out who can or can’t sell data, to prevent misuse by ‘bad actors’. Harrison’s own company also offers free and open public space data, with lower resolution images.

Capitalising on space assets

28:34 – “Space is hugely important for security and economic development, with around 10% of Europe’s economy dependent on it. If the UK lost access to GPS services, a five-day outage would cost us two billion pounds,” said Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency. He noted there are over 1,000 active satellites and thousands more planned for launch soon. Space debris is also a growing problem, with over 30,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm in size: “We must get much better technically at understanding, mitigating and responding to the threat of space debris.” This explains the importance of acting collectively, with a sense of urgency.

Additional points made by Turnock:

  • Promising new work: UN guidelines on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities; a new ESA debris removal trial and a project on automated collision avoidance.
  • Challenges: the unanimous revision of space treaties is a slow process; data sharing among space nations is key, as their militaries often over-classify satellite data.

44:08 – “We must ensure space infrastructure is really used in a good way for people’s benefit,” said Anna Rathsman, Director-General at the Swedish National Space Agency. She highlighted the dangers of satellites colliding: “This would be very bad and have long-lasting effects… and harm everyone on the planet”. More than regulations for space, collaboration is now essential among space-faring nations as well as between governments and industry, with ESA and the EU finding their respective roles. Rathsman pointed to excellent European and US collaboration on the recently launched ESA Copernicus Sentinel-6 satellite, which observes sea levels globally.

Key session three audience contributions:

“ESA and its member states are working on a space traffic management programme” (Jérome Béquignon, ESA)

“Collaboration is key, with European and US space companies working on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s stick together and get standards!” (Rudy Priem, Raytheon Technologies & Chair of NATO Industrial Advisory Group)

“Human resources, with competent staff and specialists, is key for transition planning in space. Europe has an opportunity to lead by addressing skills shortages.” (Emmanuel Jacob, EUROMIL)

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