In response to General Assembly Resolution 75/36, the Space Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace humbly offers its views on “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours.”

Founded in 1910, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing international peace by leveraging its global network to shape debates and provide decision-makers with independent insights and innovative ideas on the most consequential global threats and opportunities. Our work is nonpartisan and dedicated to achieving practical results.

Carnegie’s Space Project seeks to identify incentives and methods to foster sustainable uses of near-Earth space. As a global public interest organization, we convene stakeholders to examine the implications of intensifying competition among space powers, develop a roadmap for cooperative risk reduction, and facilitate progress on space governance. Our collaborative partners include commercial actors, key states, specialized insurers, industry organizations, and other interested stakeholders. The recommendations and views conveyed below are those of Carnegie Space Project staff and do not reflect an institutional position.

Our submission focuses on paragraph 5 of Resolution 75/36:

5. Encourages Member States to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth, characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening and their potential impact on international security, and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.

We suggest three steps that would support the development of norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors in outer space:

  • To end the purposeful creation of debris, Member States could eschew testing of antisatellite weapons in ways that create debris.
  • To promote the safe removal of debris from orbits, Member States (perhaps with input from commercial space actors) could cooperatively design best practices and eventually rules that would boost satellite owners’ and operators’ confidence that debris-removing missions would not be misinterpreted or misperceived.
  • To foster the safe and secure use of space for human development in the 21st century, Member States must achieve a common understanding of how to interpret and apply concepts found in the UN Charter and seminal treaties, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Member States could prioritize building shared understandings of how legal principles and concepts like “due regard” and prohibitions on the use of force apply in space.

Introduction

Interruptions of space-derived services, such as civil navigation, weather forecasting, and disaster relief, would challenge how society functions on a day-to-day basis. The satellites that provide these critical services face severe risks, many of which originate on Earth. Interference, whether kinetic or non-kinetic, can drastically reduce or even end a satellite’s utility. Furthermore, kinetic interference with satellites can create long-lasting debris that can destroy other satellites in orbit.

Purposeful interference with space-related infrastructure, be it satellites, ground stations, or the data links between those two nodes, may be part of interstate competition, even during peacetime. Many space systems simultaneously facilitate both civil and military services, meaning that many satellites that enable civil services may also be legitimate military targets. The prevalence of dual-use technologies makes it difficult to cleanly separate satellites by mission type. For instance, satellite-based navigation systems can facilitate both efficient agriculture and military maneuvers. Thus, interventions or purposeful interference with space assets may have dramatic effects on civil or other non-security related services, in addition to affecting military uses of space. While all interference with space assets is concerning, kinetic attacks are especially so given the risk that the resulting debris may persist well into the future, perhaps for centuries.

Member States of the United Nations (UN) can mitigate the risks associated with some of the most risk-increasing activities, such as debris-creating antisatellite testing. Member States should also investigate how to cooperatively reduce the risks posed by existing persistent debris. Finally, Member States should engage each other in meaningful discussions on how to interpret, apply, and implement existing international law in space. In concert, these efforts could significantly reduce the risks to space-derived services that enable modern life on Earth.

Limiting Debris-Creating Counterspace Capabilities

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space began formal discussions about space debris in 1994. After nearly twenty sessions, it endorsed the voluntary Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines.1 The character of the orbital debris environment has changed significantly since then. A few watershed moments created a significant portion of the current debris population. In particular, kinetic antisatellite missile tests that intercepted live satellite targets have created a large amount of debris and accelerated the urgency of the problem.

A few States have developed and tested ways to directly interfere with satellite operations over the last half century, and more States have recently initiated such programs. Stringent measures limiting the intentional production of debris caused by military activities like antisatellite tests would significantly attenuate the increase of debris-related risks. Unfortunately, the international community has not yet found the political will to adopt such measures.

While UN Member States have been unable to agree on outright bans covering counterspace capabilities like kinetic antisatellite weapons, they have agreed to ban other military practices in space, such as nuclear explosive testing and the emplacement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit. Recent antisatellite tests have not involved nuclear payloads, yet these tests still have wide ranging and indiscriminate physical effects. The debris created by antisatellite testing increases risks posed to operating satellites, thus jeopardizing the sustainable use of space. Debris-creating tests that occur in higher orbits are especially detrimental to the sustainable use of space, as the debris created by these types of tests is generally longer-lived and more persistent. Developing norms or treaty-based law to limit debris-creating military testing would mitigate these risks and help ensure that space-derived services remain available for all.

Recommendation: We encourage Member States to agree to limit uses of counterspace capabilities, such as kinetic antisatellite weapons, that create debris. If Member States are unwilling to eschew these capabilities completely, they could mutually refrain from testing these weapons in ways that create debris.

Reducing Risks Related to Orbital Debris

Over 125 million pieces of debris now orbit the Earth.2 While not every piece represents an immense risk to operational space infrastructure, some pieces are too small to track.3 This leaves many satellites exposed to unpredictable risks. Natural forces will not cleanse Earth’s orbits of debris to significantly ameliorate risks, especially at higher altitudes. Removing the most dangerous debris from orbits will require active debris removal (ADR) missions. Facilitating such missions must be a priority to preserve our ability to utilize near-Earth space in support of daily modern life.

UN Member States have struggled to develop effective regulations to guide debris removal practices. Some worry about the similarities between ADR missions and hostile counterspace capabilities. The most prominent difference between a debris removal mission and an attack on an operational satellite is the operator’s intent, which may be opaque or subject to misinterpretation. Progress will require devising protocols for clarifying debris removers’ intentions and delineating acceptable practices, be they commercial or State-owned entities.

Publicly available reports have ranked individual pieces of debris based on assessed risk profiles. Member States could use these studies as a starting point to prioritize debris removal. Member States could, through a forum like Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and, where relevant, with input from debris-related commercial entities, cooperatively agree on parameters for discrete ADR missions for derelict space objects that meet a risk-based threshold. Existing salvage and wreck removal conventions are other starting points for establishing norms of behavior for active debris removal.

Recommendation: Member States could cooperatively design rules and best practices for active debris removal operations that would meaningfully reduce the potential for satellite owners to misinterpret or misperceive the intent of debris-removing missions.

Minimizing Misinterpretation and Misperception in Space Activities

Article 39 of the UN Charter charges the Security Council to identify and respond to “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”4 Member States may misperceive space activities, independent of the actors’ intent, and escalate to a point that impacts general peace among nations. Thus, Member States would be well served to discuss what types of space activities warrant Security Council involvement, to avoid sudden escalation due to misinterpretation or misperception.

Member States have not agreed upon an authoritative interpretation of existing international law in specific relation to outer space. For instance, it is unclear to what extent prohibitions of the threat or use of force against other Member States’ territorial integrity or political independence under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter apply in space. Increased clarity on existing international law is vital for any efforts that aim to reduce the opportunities for misperceptions or misinterpretation in space.

This lack of clarity is especially prominent in the context of reversible or impermanent counterspace effects like radiofrequency interference or cyber operations. Some may perceive jamming or cyber interference with satellites to be tantamount to use of military force. Yet, there is no widespread agreement on how existing legal limits apply to these types of counterspace capabilities. The extensive use of these capabilities could be as threatening as a kinetic effect but may or may not constitute the use of force as intended by Article 2(4). Member States would benefit from discussing their assessments and identifying key areas of agreement and incongruence.

In addition to international humanitarian law, different interpretations of existing space-related legal constructs may lead to misperception and miscalculation. Effective implementation of treaties like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 hinges on Member States sharing common conceptions of the imposed obligations and duties. Some of the principles, like the obligation to conduct space activities “with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty,” have significant implications for expectations of routine space operations. Unfortunately, there is only limited agreement on what is and what is not “due regard” in space. A survey of opinions on what these terms mean to the Member States would be a useful way to begin discussions on how to implement existing space law.

Recommendation: Member States and other stakeholders in the sustainable use of space, such as commercial actors, scientific bodies, and civil society need to make sustained efforts to arrive at a common understanding of how these legal constructs, like “due regard” and prohibitions on the use of force, apply in space.

Notes

1 United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. 2010. "Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space". Vienna: United Nations. https://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/st_space_49E.pdf.

2 "Space Environment Statistics; Space Debris User Portal". 2021. https://sdup.esoc.esa.int/discosweb/statistics/.

3 NASA OIG. 2021. "NASA's Efforts To Mitigate The Risks Posed By Orbital Debris". Report No. IG-21-01. Washington, DC: NASA. https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/IG-21-011.pdf.

4 United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, 24 October 1945, 1 UNTS XVI. https://legal.un.org/repertory/art39.shtml.