Space has never been more threatened

Whether it is against 'space junk' or militaries destroying satellites, new legal frameworks are needed to protect the cosmos

The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft as it starts a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Reuters
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In its 24 years of existence, the International Space Station (ISS) has floated above a tumultuous planet Earth. It is a symbol of how the the pursuit of science can unite all powers, and of the promise of a more united world in the post-Cold War era.

Nasa has said it will be decommissioned in 2031. It so nearly got to the end of its life without becoming significantly politicised. But the Ukraine conflict, which has only been under way for less than two weeks, has changed that. Russia has now announced that it will no longer conduct joint scientific experiments with Germany in the station. Moscow's space agency, Roscosmos, has also announced it is suspending its Soyuz rocket launches from the European spaceport in French Guiana, as well as its supply of rocket engines to the US. Rhetoric is coarsening, too. Russia's space chief, Dmitry Rogozin, has said that America can go to orbit "on their brooms".

It is a tragic and dangerous moment. The news is the latest and most severe development in a trend that is seeing space, the most untapped and unspoilt natural environment to which humans currently have access, increasingly threatened and politicised.

Environmentally, world powers are not doing enough to protect it. Scientists have been warning of the increasing danger posed by "space junk", debris from former missions that orbit out of control. In recent months, crew on the ISS have been forced into an emergency capsule a number of times after space junk passed dangerously close. Last week, an unclaimed, decommissioned rocket crashed into the moon for the first time in history, creating a new crater on the surface.

Intentional actions are also a risk. In January, Nato said in a report that space satellites, key to fighting modern wars, are "high-priority targets" for enemy attacks. As tensions between the bloc and Russia reach historic levels, this warning must be taken seriously, because more and more strategic assets use them, illustrated by Mr Musk's recent attempt to get his satellite-based internet capability into Ukraine to secure its connection from the destruction.

All of these developments are indicative of an emerging free-for-all, in which private companies and governments are on course for possible collision, deliberate or not. On Earth, international law is used to, at least in theory, bring order to these complex situations. It is time space gets the same. Creating a new legal framework will not be easy, but it will be crucial if the cosmos is to be protected. In an optimistic move last year, the UAE unveiled the Dubai Courts of Space, which it hopes will play a "leading role in advancing judicial systems to direct capacity and capability to commercial space-related disputes". There are early frameworks already in place. In 2020, for example, the UAE's space agency joined the Artemis Accords, an international treaty drawn up by Nasa that sets out standards on space exploration, encouraging transparency and safety. More such agreements will be needed, however, if the complex environment is to be properly regulated.

The need for more such bodies does not mean space has to become a vast, legalistic natural reserve. There is much it can offer to improve life at home beyond just scientific research, be it precious metals on asteroids for a world that has never relied on them more, or satellite technology. All countries have a right to pursue these opportunities responsibly.

More laws will protect such ventures, not hamper them. Without them, any geopolitical rivalry, particularly a conflict as significant as Ukraine's, has the potential to deprive the world of access to a region upon which it is increasingly reliant. As environmental crises spiral out of control on Earth, the world has a chance to show lessons have been learned for the sake of space, and revive the early spirit of the ISS at a time when it has rarely been needed more.

Published: March 07, 2022, 3:00 AM