By Siddharth Shankar (IInd Year, National Law University, Odisha)
Internet in the present age is provided predominantly through wires. However, the internet provided through satellite-based systems despite being largely restricted due to high costs for launching and maintenance offer several advantages. One of the main advantages is their ability to bridge connectivity gaps in remote or high-altitude regions where conventional cellular towers fail to provide services. Since satellite-based systems are not dependent on traditional network towers to work, they are not limited by the remoteness of a place. A network satellite can cover approximately 1.05 million km under ideal conditions, providing better reception signal in that area. On the other hand, network towers offer a maximum coverage of about 40 kilometres. However, this coverage is often limited due to two main factors: the lack of sufficient funds and infrastructure needed to set up a network tower and the capacity of users it can handle simultaneously. These limitations can result in areas with poor or no network signal, especially in remote or underdeveloped regions where the establishment and maintenance of network infrastructure can be challenging. Hence, cellular towers require a nation to have sufficient funds and infrastructure in place to access their benefits. In contrast, satellite-based systems offer broader coverage and can be deployed by one entity to provide internet access not only to their own nation but also to other countries, overcoming infrastructure limitations at the receiving end. So, this attribute is what Elon Musk hopes to exploit to solve the problem of network issues even in remote areas and tap into billions of dollars. To date he has launched more than 3,000 satellites. He plans to launch nearly 12,000 satellites, with possible extension to 42,000 Starlink satellites in the future, to cover every nook and cranny of the earth to provide seamless internet connectivity. This massive deployment of satellites raises concerns regarding the potential impact on other objects in orbit and the broader global framework governing outer space. The increasing number of satellites in space poses risks of collision and cluttering of space. In light of these challenges, it becomes essential to analyse the current global framework governing outer space. We will critically analyse the current global framework and explore the reasons why a more comprehensive and agile framework is imperative to address the challenges posed by the unprecedented growth in satellite constellations.
1. Global Framework the Need Of The Hour?
The global framework entails international agreements, treaties, guidelines, and norms that govern activities and interactions in outer space and provides a legal and regulatoryframework to ensure the responsible and peaceful use of outer space. Though, it is now becoming more and more obsolete owing to the technological advancements and entry ofnon-traditional players apart from the state (hereinafter “traditional players”). The previous section explored the motivations and incentives that Elon Musk might have to proceed with Project Starlink. Prima facie this project looks novel in the sense that it has never been attempted before andnoble as it seeks to solve the problem of internet connectivity in remote areas. However, this project has hidden costs that are now evident to the general masses and pose a threat to both space and the people on Earth. Technically speaking, blanketing space with so many satelliteswould interfere with astronomers worldwide which was already a cause for concern for many renowned experts. This was made evident recently when the satellites got so bright that they were visible to the naked eye and even interfered with images captured by telescopes. In a recent report by Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), it was stated that the interference by Starlink satellites was so evident that the telescope used by ZTF to capture images of the sky to help spot asteroids, glares appeared in around a fifth of the images. It also theorized in its report that the disruption is set to increase as more satellites are added to orbits. In another instance, it was reported that the satellites posed a great threat to other objects in space due to collision concerns. Reportedly, it had two near misses with the Chinese space station Tiangong. There is also a possibility that the satellites could change the chemistry of upper atmosphere due to the chemicals released and the burning of aluminum of dead satellites. The Earth may experience unforeseen or previously unexperienced phenomena especially at a time when we are tackling global warming. It is not just Elon Musk’s Starlink that we should be wary of but also other non-traditional players who plan to executesimilar ideas to commercialise space, like Kuiper by Amazon. In the growing trend of commercialisation of space these problems are bound to increase if not addressed adequately and within time. Giving free rein to these non-traditional players not only poses a grave threat to space but also to the life on the planet itself. Currently, the global framework on outer space falls short in addressing these issues posed by non-traditional players. This shows the urgency to address this problem which is only possible through a global framework addressing outer space regulations. To better understand how and why a global frameworkwould help, we will analyse the current space governance system while identifying the deficiencies and explaining them to show possible ways to strengthen the framework.
2. Current Frameworks on Outer Space
UNOOSA or “United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs” is the concerned forum for the development of international space laws. Till date, there have been 5 treaties on outer space and these collectively deal with various issues such as “non-appropriation of outer space by any one nation, freedom of exploration, arms control, liability for any damages caused, the safety and the rescue of spacecrafts and the astronauts, prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, notification and the registration of space activities, scientific investigation and the settlement of disputes.” The first treaty or “The Outer space treaty” is considered the foundation for international space laws. While this treaty lays the groundwork for accountability, it presents a significant challenge when it comes to regulating space activities by non-traditional players. This is due to a notable aspect of the treaty: “Signatory members are each responsible for their space activities, including private commercial endeavours, and must provide authorization and continuing supervision”.This absence of strict constraints or explicit guidelines for approving such activities gives rise to the concern of unrestricted accumulation of satellites as the treaty places no numerical limitations on the number of satellites that a nation can launch. Consequently, each satellite launch contributes to the burgeoning congestion in space. This crowding jeopardises the safety of other space objects, increasing the likelihood of collisions with space debris. Furthermore, the growing density of satellites also heightens the vulnerability of launches from Earth, as they face an elevated risk of encountering space debris in their trajectory.
The Treaty provides broad principles but lacks any specific regulations to address emerging issues such as space debris mitigation, space resource utilisation, space tourism, and other commercial activities. It is silent on how these activities should be conducted, leading to uncertainties and potential conflicts and is primarily focused on the activities of the states With the rise of non-traditional players, there is a need to address the legal and regulatory aspects related to these commercial ventures. Another point that the treaty is silent on, is space traffic management. The treaty does not address the challenges of space traffic management, including the increasing congestion in space and the need for coordination and collision avoidance among satellites and spacecraft. As the number of satellites and space debris continues to grow, there is a pressing need to develop international standards and guidelines for safe and sustainable space operations. While the treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space, it lacks specific verification mechanisms to ensure compliance. There is a need for more robust and effective verification protocols to address concerns related to the militarization of space and the prevention of the arms race in outer space. The Outer Space Treaty lacks an enforcement mechanism or sanctions for non-compliance. Although states are expected to comply with the treaty, thereare no clear consequences for violations.
The Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines which were introduced in 2007, are of relatively recent origin. The main focus of these guidelines was for the better management and lessening of debris, so produced in space. It was endorsed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and passed in the United Nations General Assembly. It contains a total of 7 guidelines. Though it too contains guidelines wide in scope, it was a step towards addressing specific problems due to the engagement of more and more players with the rapid advancement in technology. This can be ascertained in that, USA; the leading nation in space-faring previously used rockets and spacecrafts which could only be used once and were subsequently disposed of upon re-entry. In the Modern-day, companies like SpaceX have been successful in employing rockets that could be reused and do not get burned up upon re-entry. Though the reusable spacecraft was made with more in mind to save expenses on rebuilding from scratch than adhering to the guidelines.
3. How Can We Achieve This?
Achieving a global framework for space governance will be a long-term commitment whichwill require diplomatic efforts to foster dialogue and cooperation among nations to discuss the need for an updated framework while negotiating with key spacefaring nations, emerging space actors, and other relevant stakeholders. It will require a comprehensive review of the existing Outer Space Treaty, Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines and other frameworks, taking into account all the relevant technological advancements, commercial space activities and other contemporary issues; in identifying the gaps that require clarifications, and potential updates. The framework would also need to incorporate provisions to address emerging challenges such as space traffic management, space debris mitigation, space resource andorbital allocation. Robust mechanisms could also be developed to ensure compliance with the treaty and establish processes to resolve disputes. The definitions and the language should not be ambiguous but clear and concise so, as no interpretations are left up to states, as it can backfire and create friction between the states. The space debris mitigation guidelines were made in mind to have a global acceptance, but their acceptance was made on a voluntary basis and this attributed to its drawback. So, a legally binding framework, instead of a voluntary one, would be a step towards realising these goals. Lastly, instead of pushing their national agendas, countries should give priority to the development of a global framework and making space a global common.
The current global framework on space is insufficient to deal with the changing order of space development and has been slow to consider its evolution and technological changes. The growing participation by non-traditional players warrants a need for a global framework to ensure the safety and sustainability of space. So, the need of the hour is a new, stronger, and binding global framework on outer space regulations withthe support of all the stakeholders concerned.