Apr 26, 2010

UN will create a culture of respect towards space

Estimated Article Reading Time: 7 min.

Can you elaborate on the need for a United Nations space policy?

The UN has so far pursued a highly decentralised approach to space amongst its agencies and organisations. This is not considered a tenable option for the future. This proposal for a UN space policy charts a course towards the UN regaining an important place in the global space context as the current arrangements are not fully satisfactory and a far more proactive approach is necessary to underpin and sustain the UN’s capability to play its role in the rapidly evolving space arena of the 21st century. Too much is at stake for the global community for the UN to watch from the sidelines and be only passive and reactive. To improve its ability to play a more strategic and purposeful role, UN will need to develop a balanced space policy that properly addresses the long-term requirements of the global community in its uses of outer space

There is a growing necessity for the UN to take action providing an overall stewardship to space activities for the following reasons:

Stable order in orbits:

The sustainability of space activities in Earth orbits over the longterm is increasingly a matter of concern for space-faring countries and regional space organisations, as well as for emerging space actors and commercial satellite operators alike. The Earth’s orbital environment is a true common good for humankind. However, the growing population of space debris poses a major threat to the long-term sustainability of space activities. Improving the safety of space operations is thus one of the most important issues for the long-term sustainable use of orbits. Particular emphasis should be placed on the agreement reached by COPUOS on the question of the character and utilisation of the geostationary orbit and the subsequent endorsement by the UN General Assembly in resolution 55/122 of 8 December 2000 for improved management of orbital slots and electromagnetic frequencies as a measure for promoting more effective use of outer space.

Integrated approach to the use of space:

The treaties governing the exploration and uses of outer space have been in place for several decades now and have served as the legal framework for space activities. However, many States have not yet acceded to the five core treaties, including some members of UNCOPUOS. Nonetheless, for preserving order in outer space, it is desirable that States and international organisations should conduct their space activities under the coverage of these instruments. Moreover, many States develop, own and operate spacecraft without participating in the rule-making process of space law, or without having ratified the existing treaties and conventions, but this needs to evolve. There are many bodies (international, regional and national) involved in rule-making on the uses of outer space. There should be, however, an integrated approach under the auspices of the UN. The UNCOPUOS will provide a forum for promoting inter-regional dialogue and coordination among these bodies. In particular, a greater involvement of the UN would facilitate the legal harmonisation of existing domestic and international legal frameworks for outer space activities.

Supportive environment for new and existing space users: In the first decades of the space age, space activities were the exclusive domain of the world powers. But there is a rapidly growing number of States involved in space activities. The changing space context, and particularly its growing complexity, is raising the importance of multilateral fora to deal with the longterm sustainability of space activities. A UN space policy would help create a supportive system and a valuable learning tool for emerging space countries.

Utilisation of space for the benefit of all humankind: Space by its nature is a useful tool for the management of issues that cross national borders. Satellite communication has become the most powerful engine of growth for development. UN-led activities like UNSPIDER and GNSS, among others, have to be promoted to deal with transnational issues such as supporting disaster relief or mitigating the effects of climate change and contributing to the development agenda.

There should be similar activities conducted under the auspices of the UN for improving human lives by sharing the benefits derived from space hardware and services. A UN space policy would help developing countries to learn and use space systems for their national welfare.

We are witnessing lot of private activity in space. How can the UN take an active role in streamlining these activities and what needs to be done?

One of the first things to do is to recognise the importance of commercialisation of the space. A transformation is seen in the last three years to this effect. We have to work with countries in order to have a greater involvement of the private sector in decision making process of the UN. At the same time, we have to remember that the UN is an organisation of member States and we have to respect that. We will evolve a mechanism where private sector’s involvement is recognised and streamlined.

Another pertinent issue is regarding the definition of outer space and the boundary between air space and outer space. Is UN space policy looking at addressing this issue?

The limitation of outer space is one of the most difficult aspects of international space law. It has not been well defined. There are a couple of approaches that have been observed in the past years though. There are various committees trying to define the limit but there has not been much success though. The current proposal is not dealing with that aspect. It is dealing with international cooperation and regional dialogue to support the establishment of national space policies.

There is a lot of talk on regional cooperation. How do we bring in all the countries together into a binding policy so that the space is not exploited for harmful purposes?

Through its work, COPOUS always targets for the preservation of major principles to keep the space for peaceful purposes for humankind. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is binding on all member countries with its main principles. We are working on the new countries that are arriving in the space arena. A space proposal will reach these newcomers to help them understand their own perceptions on space matters. It is a measure in long term towards sustainability in space. It is an important aspect to minimise the risk of space debris by having some modus for conduct that can set an example for new countries entering into the space arena.

Kindly elaborate on the space mitigation guidelines proposed by UN?

The space mitigation guidelines are the most important and concrete results we have achieved so far in COPOUS. The space policy will promote these guideline. One of the problems we have within the guidelines is that they are not obligatory. In my opinion we should reinforce the very essence of these guidelines by our policy by recommendations to the countries to respect these guidelines even if this is not compulsory yet. Creating a culture of respect towards space is one of the main objectives of the policy. This perception that outer space is also an integral part of earth, that it has to be seen in a holistic way to help us better understand our environment.

What kind of safety framework is UN space policy looking at?

The safety framework deals with the nuclear power sources. This is very good example of how two different entities from the UN can sit together, work together and produce a positive result while dealing with a very delicate and important problem that is power sources in outer space. So the corroboration between COPOUS and International Atomic Energy Agency is one of the finest examples on how a space policy dealing with the coordination amongst United Nations entities can produce good result. That is why we promote within the space policy initiative, not only to continue to reinforce this particular framework but to seek possibilities with other specialized agencies like ITU, INS and International Meteorological Organisation. There are so many options that can be done in the same way that the pilot program with IAEA has been done and has given good result.

Is the proposed UN space policy looking at earth observation (EO) issues as well?

Yes, the policy is looking at supporting free data access, with limitations that the market imposes. The proposal involves consensual dialogue in which private sector is also a part. But the main idea is to promote a free access especially when it is needed in worldwide problems like disaster management and climate change. We know that countries like Brazil have a successful policy of free data sharing but we would like to have that in a much wider dimension.

Is there a timeframe for this UN policy to be formalised?

Things in space go slowly but I have to say that we have been quite fast in this case, much more than any other proposal. The first step was the support the proposed policy is getting by many countries. Then we obtained the mandate from UN General Assembly, which is a success in itself.

In the meantime, I have had several informal consultations with member States who have come up with new ideas and new proposals. We are articulating them and will propose the new text in June and then it is up to the member States to decide what to do. The results will be seen in June but I am quite optimistic.