UK launches space diplomacy bid

Space debris - as shown in this computer generated image - is just one problem

© Getty Images
Space debris – as shown in this computer generated image – is just one problem

Space matters.

It might seem there are enough problems down here on earth to be getting on with. But what happens up there, where the atmosphere thins and the vacuum of space begins, affects you and me.

That’s because the thousands of satellites that orbit the earth shape our lives.

Any disruption to those satellites – through conflict or misunderstanding – could have a devastating impact on millions of people. And that’s why British diplomats are trying to see if new international rules can be agreed to keep the peace in the heavens above.

You might not realise but you have probably used space today. 

When you made a mobile phone call, a satellite may well have been used to route your call.

When you went to an ATM and withdrew some cash, the time of the transaction was recorded using a satellite-based clock.

And when you ordered a delivery online, the courier found your home using a satellite map. Maybe you get your internet or television via by satellite.

The list goes on.

There’s also all of our essential services. Weather forecasters depend on data collected by satellites. air traffic controllers need satellites to manage crowded air spaces. The emergency services need satellites to know where to go.

The military forces are highly dependent on satellites, for reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence, targeting, communication, early warning, command and control.

But if all this was disrupted by conflict in space, much of the international system and economy could grind to a halt. And there are fears this could become a reality because of growing congestion and tension in space.

There are more satellites and debris floating round than ever before.

Only last week the International Space Station had to carry out an urgent manoeuvre to avoid the remnants of an old Japanese rocket.

And while commercial rockets are being used as taxis to deliver astronauts to space stations, there are also plans for rich tourists to slip the surly bonds of earth.

“Space is becoming increasingly congested,” says Victoria Samson, Washington director of the Secure World Foundation that promotes the sustainable use of space.

“Right now there are about 3,000 active satellites, but if you look at how many satellites are planned to be launched over the next 10 years, there could be an additional 107,000. So it’s busy and it’s just getting busier.”

At the same time as space is becoming more commercial, there are also fears it’s becoming more militarised. In July, Russia was accused of testing an anti-satellite weapon in space. 

Donald Trump has declared “space is the world’s new war-fighting domain” and set up a Space Force to defend US interests.

So, amid all this uncertainty, Britain has begun a diplomatic campaign to draw up new rules for responsible behaviour in space.

UK ambassador Aidan Liddle has drafted a resolution for the UN General Assembly that aims to broker a new international consensus.

“As space becomes more congested, the likelihood of accidents and miscalculation or misunderstanding increases,” he told me.

“It’s really in everybody’s interest that we have some sort of framework governing how states and militaries behave in space.

“We may disagree on exactly what those rules should be or what they should cover but really it’s in everybody’s interest that we fill the gaps that exist in the law governing space and that we work out together a way of managing those threats so that we don’t we don’t exacerbate tensions between states on Earth.”

The problem is much international law as it relates to space is limited and out of date: Cold War rules ban nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles but not much more. These days satellites can also be threatened by electronic jamming, cyber-attacks and lasers.

The difficulty the UK has is that talks about space rules have been gridlocked for years.

There is a divide between countries who want treaty-guaranteed laws that ban specific weapons and those who prefer generalised rules and norms that guide behaviour.

The question now is how to be more transparent, how to make activity more predictable, how to avoid retaliation and how to ensure peaceful satellites are not used for hostile acts – even to define what is and what is not a hostile act.

But Victoria Samson says the UK’s diplomatic initiative might gain support because countries are beginning to realise how much of their vital national infrastructure depends on space.

But not everyone is so confident.

Gabriel Elefteriu, who heads the Space Policy Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange, says the best outcome is probably coalitions of the willing coming together around codes of conduct.

But he believes Britain is right to be in there, shaping the rules as space technology prepares for revolutionary advances in the final frontier.

“The question that should bother all of us very much is – are were really thinking seriously about the next 30 years in space?” he says.

“Are we prepared as a country to be seriously in the game in 2050 because one day the future will come knocking – so we’d better be ready.”

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