Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Space Activities – An Excerpt

This is an excerpt-cum-analysis of UN COPUOS's guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities

A satellite image of North-Eastern Africa (Source - Quartz Africa)

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Activities (UNOOSA), via the Committee On the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), has developed guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. The guidelines start by acknowledging the ever-increasing space debris problem facing humankind, amongst others. The accumulation of space debris problems will indubitably stunt the long-term sustainability of our immediate space environment.

To this end, the Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee developed a set of voluntary guidelines to set out a holistic approach to promoting the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. UNOOSA defines the long-term sustainability of outer space activities as the ability to maintain the conduct of space activities indefinitely into the future in a manner that realises the objectives of equitable access to the benefits of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes, to meet the needs of the present generations while preserving the outer space environment for future generations. 

The guidelines are voluntary and not legally binding under international law, but any action taken towards their implementation should be consistent with the applicable principles and norms of international law

The Guidelines

  • Policy and regulatory framework for space activities

The first guideline admonishes States, international intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental entities (hereinafter referred to as parties) to enact, amend or revise their regulations concerning their outer space activities. This hinges upon Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, which enshrines the principle of state responsibility – states are responsible for the space-related actions of their citizens. The guideline differentiates between the “first generation” issues that national regulations address – safety, liability, reliability, and cost; and “second generation” issues that national regulations should address. According to the guideline, these issues should be such that they encourage the long-term sustainability of outer space. This could include legislations that preclude unguided booster landings. Africa, for example, has been on the receiving end of unguided booster landings as recently as May 2021. In addition, another example is enacting regulations that promote space debris mitigation measures.

The guideline also expects that states, as is their duty, supervise the space-related activities of their citizens. Furthermore, states are to ensure that there are adequate structures to ensure that their citizens’ actions are consistent with the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. In addition, states are to ensure that they enact regulations that comply with UNOOSA’s long-term sustainability goals. Finally, the guideline enumerates other measures that a party may take for this purpose.

Furthermore, the policy recognises the limited nature of radio frequencies and orbital slots. It enjoins parties to pay attention to the long-term sustainability of space activities and sustainable development on Earth by facilitating the prompt resolution of identified harmful radio frequency interference. For example, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), the SKA project’s governing organisation, expressed that the telescope’s science would be severely compromised if thousands of telecommunications spacecraft begin flying overhead with no regard for the radio interference they might cause. The guidelines allude to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) constitution to establish necessary precautionary measures for its state parties. 

All but one African nation are parties to the ITU Treaty.

The guidelines also advise the registration of space objects to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space. The Registration Convention of 1974 provides for the registration of space objects. The guidelines argue – rightly – that effective and consistent registration of space objects ensures the safety of space operations. Therefore, parties should ensure that space objects launched from their territories are correctly and promptly registered. Furthermore, prompt dissemination of registration details to other states or international organisations is necessary to achieve long-term sustainability goals.

African parties to the Outer Space Treaty
African parties to the Registration Convention
  • Safety of space operations

Much like the first guideline, UNOOSA divides the second guideline into sub guidelines that give context to the general guideline. Consequently, the second guideline proposes that states voluntarily share “regularly updated contact information on their designated entities authorised to engage in exchanges of appropriate information on on-orbit spacecraft operations, conjunction assessments and the monitoring of objects and events in outer space, in particular, those entities that are responsible for processing incoming incident reports and forecasts and adopting precautionary and response measures”. The intention is not hard to see; parties must (easily) know whom to reach out to in the event of a potential on-orbit mishap.

The necessary information may be shared by either providing it to UNOOSA and/or delivering it directly to other states and international intergovernmental organisations. Similarly, states should take further steps to ensure that they can promptly respond to disaster avoidance warnings, or upon disaster, to ensure they can promptly facilitate effective responses to limit the impact of such disaster. 

Furthermore, recognising that spaceflight safety strongly depends upon the accuracy of orbital and other relevant data, the Office urges parties to improve the accuracy of such data and adopt “common, internationally recognised standards” when sharing orbital information on space objects. The guideline also proposes that parties continually seek to improve accuracy determination methods. Another significant extension of the second guideline is that parties share information obtained regarding monitoring space debris. Thus, to ensure the accuracy of received data, parties are to take the necessary and relevant steps to secure the accuracy of the information they share. 

Likewise, the guidelines suggest that parties with spacecraft capable of adjusting trajectories during orbital phases of controlled flight perform conjunction assessment. Parties are to conduct the assessment during every orbital phase “for controlled flight for their current and planned spacecraft trajectories”. Naturally, to ensure the effectiveness of these assessments, the Office advises that parties should develop and implement approaches to and methods for conjunction assessment that may include improving the orbit determination of relevant space objects, amongst others. Regarding spacecraft operators without the ability to perform the necessary conjunction assessments, they have the option of legally requesting the aid of “appropriate around-the-clock conjunction assessment entities. 

As an offshoot of the above, parties are also to advise their launch providers to conduct pre-launch conjunction assessments for intended spacecraft launches. Likewise, states should also take necessary steps to improve the effectiveness of the pre-launch conjunction assessment. For example, upon seeking support to perform the assessment, one of such steps is to “develop common international standards for describing relevant information” necessary for the assessment.

Another critical contextual application of the second guideline is sharing space weather data and forecast, necessarily including appropriate steps to ascertain the continuous accuracy and effectiveness of the data and forecasts so shared. In addition, to create an international space weather database network, UNOOSA encourages parties to – to the extent that they can – continuously monitor space weather and subsequently share such information. Furthermore, the guideline advocates for unrestricted access to and archiving of weather data for all governmental, civilian and commercial space weather data owners for mutual benefit.

Moreso, the guidelines urge parties to “promote design approaches that increase the trackability of space objects, regardless of their physical and operational characteristics”. Expectedly, this will increase the ease of tracking such space objects, reducing the risk of unpredicted collisions in orbit. This advice is with specific regard to developing space nations as small-size space objects are essential to such space nations’ space programmes.

64% of satellites launched by African countries are small-size satellites

Additionally, regarding uncontrolled reentries, parties are to take necessary steps to track and publicise information regarding their spacecraft in the event of a potential uncontrolled reentry. Such parties are also to coordinate the risk mitigations associated with such uncontrolled reentry. Likewise, where a party discovers such potential uncontrolled reentry of another party’s spacecraft, it is to promptly share such information with the party having jurisdiction and control of the spacecraft.

Finally, there are also necessary steps to take where the party having jurisdiction and control over the spacecraft is undeterminable. These provisions are similar to the provisions of the Rescue and Return agreement concerning astronauts from other countries. The guideline also seeks to promote the cooperation between states upon whose jurisdiction “a space object or its component parts have been discovered or are presumed to have reached the surface of the Earth” and parties who have jurisdiction over and control of such spacecraft, or its component part. Such cooperation is to search for and identify, assess, analyse, evacuate and return the object or its fragment. 

The guidelines also envisage situations where parties use laser beams passing through near-Earth outer space. Thus, the guidelines urge such parties to take all necessary and particular precautions upon an accidental illumination of passing space objects by such laser beams.

  • International cooperation, capacity-building and awareness

The third guideline admonishes parties to “promote and facilitate international cooperation to enable all countries, especially developing and emerging spacefaring countries, to implement these guidelines.” Furthermore, parties are to share experiences, expertise and information relating to the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. UNOOSA also urges states with valuable experience regarding space activities to set up capacity-building schemes and programmes, especially regarding developing countries with developing space programmes. To this end – the guidelines advise – experienced parties could “support current capacity-building initiatives and promote new forms of regional and international cooperation and capacity-building”. These initiatives will help developing nations with the resources to ensure their space activities are consistent with UNOOSA’s long-term sustainability goals.

In the spirit of cooperation, the guidelines also advocate open and accessible data policies. In particular, it provides that parties should make efforts to “make relevant space-based information and data accessible” to countries affected by disasters, or on such other considerations consistent with “humanity, neutrality and impartiality”, amongst others. It is not enough to share the information; parties can also lend whatever necessary support to secure the optimal use of the data so accessed. Additionally, the Office sees the need for the increased awareness of space and its benefits. Thus, it encourages parties to raise awareness relating to space activities’ critical benefits, especially “the consequent importance of enhancing the long-term sustainability of outer space activities”. UNOOSA advocates for public and private partnerships to raise public awareness.

  • Scientific and technical research and development

Despite the foregoing, UNOOSA acknowledges the present limits of human knowledge regarding the long-term sustainability of outer space. Therefore, it encourages parties to “promote and support research into and the development of sustainable space technologies, processes and services and other initiatives for the sustainable exploration and use of outer space, including celestial bodies”. The guideline also specifies that developing countries are to participate in such research. Likewise, the Office also urges investigation into methods of managing space debris population in the long run. Furthermore, states are to increase compliance with the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the COPUOS.

The following guidelines will achieve optimal efficiency if they are viewed as a holistic approach to increasing humanity’s reliance on outer space and its resources. You can find the link to the guidelines here.