Outer space, the new wild west

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Susmita Mohanty
Susmita Mohanty

CEO of Earth2Orbit

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform.

Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade.  In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform, in which we ask the ‘unusual suspects’ to share their views on what reforms are necessary to make the rules-based order work for us all.

Outer space, humanity’s shared resource, is fast turning into the next ‘wild wild west’.

The 21st century, unlike the 20th, will not be a race between nations, but rather a race between private companies seeking to exploit space assets, mine space resources and ferry tourists, and, eventually, miners, terra-formers, construction workers, settlers, and others.

Let’s take stock of some happenings in recent years that are symptomatic of the maladies that will need addressing through appropriate legislation and governance.

In November 2015, during President Obama’s administration, the US Congress passed a legislation that unilaterally gives American companies the rights to own and sell natural resources they mine from bodies in space, including asteroids.

Whether it is Trump talking of ‘nuking hurricanes’ or Musk of ‘nuking Martian poles’, these brazen pronouncements cannot be taken lightly

In July 2017, the Luxembourg parliament voted in favour of an asteroid mining law, similar to that of the US, that gives mining companies the right to keep their loot. In the absence of binding international treaties, unilateral and unfettered commercial exploitation of outer space resources is almost certain.

In 2017, commercial companies, governments and amateurs launched more than 400 satellites into orbit, over four times the yearly average for 2000–2010.

In February 2018, SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk tossed up a red roadster into space. Some consider this a nerd-baiting publicity stunt and others, an obscene act of megalomania. It sets a worrisome precedent for mindless littering of outer space with personal effects to generate press buzz.

In August 2019, Musk reiterated his idea of ‘Nuking Mars’ to make it habitable. Musk has repeatedly posited the idea that Mars’ atmosphere could be warmed to accommodate human life by nuking its poles and artificially engineering a greenhouse effect. Whether it is Trump talking of ‘nuking hurricanes’ or Musk of ‘nuking Martian poles’, these brazen pronouncements cannot be taken lightly. The vocabulary of conquest and control ignores the environmental and human cost of testosterone-driven megalomania.

Such extreme satellite and debris traffic can lead to catastrophe

In March 2019, India’s Prime Minister Modi ordered India’s first anti-satellite technology (ASAT) demonstration in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) raising debris concerns for the crewed orbiting International Space Station. India joined the US, Russia and China in the ASAT club. Others are bound to follow.

In October 2019, Virgin Galactic went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Casual passenger spaceflight is about to take off. In addition to Branson, Bezos and Musk have now publicly expressed their intention to ferry people into space.

In November 2019, American constellation company Planet declared it has reached the 400 satellites’ milestone. They are one of many such constellation companies. If all of the proposed constellations go up, they will roughly equal the number of satellites that humanity has launched in the history of spaceflight.

Already, we have around 20,000 human-made objects in low Earth orbit, from working satellites to small shards of solar panels and rocket pieces. Such extreme satellite and debris traffic can lead to catastrophe. Another serious concern cited by astronomers with the recent launch of 122 out of a total of 42,000 Starlink satellites by SpaceX is that these super bright objects will interfere with ground-based astronomy.

It is time to not just upgrade the Outer Space Treaty, but completely overhaul it

In recent decades, it has become fashionable for billionaires to nonchalantly talk about ‘colonising’ other planets. They conveniently ignore aspects such as demographics, human and environmental catastrophes caused by colonial adventures of their ancestors here on Earth.

The behaviour, as demonstrated by examples above, by individuals, companies and governments is nothing but a classic rendition of the ‘he who dares wins’ or ‘he who has the money can get away with murder’ philosophy of the Wild West. Altruistic principles treating space as a shared resource found in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979 have been rendered obsolete.

The question we, as humanity, need to be asking ourselves is how did we manage to get to this situation of being completely unprepared, legally speaking, to deal with this level of irresponsible conduct, environmental apathy, and unethical business practices.

The answer lies in the inadequacies of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that forms the basis of international space law and governance. That treaty was a product of its time. It was meant to de-escalate Cold War tensions and prevent nuclearisation of space. The highlights of the now outdated Treaty are: (a) it prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons in space, (b) it limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only, and (c) it establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.

It is time to not just upgrade the Outer Space Treaty, but completely overhaul it. The new Treaty will have to comprehensively address human greed, short-sightedness and irrepressible rogue tendencies to mine-monetise-colonise whatever comes its way.

As we now know, anthropogenic climate emergency on earth may have already crossed multiple tipping points. The risk is an existential threat to human civilisation. We are in a state of planetary emergency. A very similar story is set to unfold in outer space, unless we do something right away to prevent it through binding international treaties and enforceable laws. 21st century space governance needs laws and wisdom.

Space is not a frontier. It doesn’t need conquering. If anything, it needs safeguarding.

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