UAE's Mars mission chief on stopping the next Cold War in space

The Emirates is leading the Peaceful Uses of Space committee at a time when space is no longer immune to politics and war

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Nations cannot be allowed to send weapons into space and turn a peaceful realm into the next 'Cold War battleground'.

The Emirati head of a top UN committee has said that "space should be maintained as a peaceful and collaborative environment."

Omran Sharaf, who will chair the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space until 2023, told The National he would continue the work of a group that "played a vital role during the highest tensions of the Cold War between the superpowers".

Mr Sharaf, who leads the Mars mission at the UAE's main space agency, did not name or single out nations who have tested weapons in space. But Russia, China, India and the US have all tested potential weapons in recent years.

Our goal is to maintain dialogue between nations, prevent an arms race in space and maintain peaceful nature of space activities that serves humanity
Omran Sharaf, UN space committee chair

In November, Russia carried out an anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) test in which it destroyed one of its satellites, creating thousands of pieces of space debris.

Last week, the first UN gathering under the new leadership was held in Vienna, where many delegations expressed concerns over an arms race in space and the need to prevent its militarisation.

While the committee’s goal has always been to keep space peaceful since it became operational in 1959, it now plays an especially important role as more countries seek to militarise space. Some have already tested military technology in space.

Preventing future conflicts

In an interview, Mr Sharaf spoke about his role and the challenges for the committee during a time of geopolitical conflict.

“It's a committee that played a vital role during the highest tensions of the Cold War between the superpowers,” he said.

“And it’s a committee that played a very big role in maintaining the sustainability of activities in space and preventing an arms race in space.

“I always have to be neutral and make sure that member states work together and march towards the goals set for each session.

“Part of the goal is to maintain dialogue between nations, prevent an arms race in space, maintain peaceful nature of space activities that serves humanity and promote collaboration between nations in strategic and sensitive topics related to space.”

Mission director Omran Sharaf announcing from mission control that the Hope probe successfully entered Mars' orbit, on February 9, 2020. Photo: Wam

The committee now has 100 members, including countries and international organisations.

A draft report for the committee's meeting held from June 1 to 10 showed that many delegations brought up the topic of preventing an arms race.

“The view was expressed that the threat of militarisation of outer space underscored the importance of international dialogue and negotiation aimed at creating legally binding norms for transparency and confidence-building because non-legally binding measures did not sufficiently address the threat of an arms race in outer space,” the report said. The speakers were not identified.

Concerns over anti-satellite weapons

There have been calls for transparency in space, as countries such as Russia, China and India perform anti-satellite tests, which involved using military technology to destroy their own satellites.

Experts have voiced concerns over this because the technology can be used during an armed conflict, and creates dangerous amounts of debris that could endanger astronauts and other spacecraft.

In November, Russia carried out an ASAT (anti-satellite weapons) test in which it destroyed one of its satellites, creating thousands of pieces of space debris.

India ordered an ASAT test in 2019 in an operation called the Mission Shakti, also resulting in a dangerous level of space debris.

China carried one out in 2007 and the US followed shortly after, though the US has recently banned anti-satellite tests.

Cyberattacks using technology that jams communications, and possessing a large fleet of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites, are other ways of militarising space.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, a number of cyber attacks have been carried out on satellites operating over the besieged country, often disconnecting its internet and communication services, thus cutting off the Ukrainian people from the wider world.

Mr Sharaf said the committee has been successful in the past in keeping space peaceful, despite geopolitical conflicts.

“This committee has succeeded in the past, and even currently, in maintaining that, regardless of the geopolitical landscape or situation globally,” he said.

“We have to always have to work together to reach consensus to maintain that.

“Obviously, it's not easy sometimes, and especially nowadays, given the different challenges that are taking place globally.

“Whether it's political or even Covid-19-related, as a committee, we succeeded in achieving the goals for this session, which is in line with the bigger objective of the United Nations.”

Other topics brought up by delegations during this session ranged from space exploration and innovation, the Space2030 Agenda, space and climate change, space and sustainable development, to the spin-off benefits of space technology.

Mr Sharaf is serving as the chairman of the committee for 2022 and next year.

Updated: June 14, 2022, 7:10 AM