Abu Dhabi Space Debate: Global tension threatening sector

Concerns grow over outdated treaties and measures by countries to militarise space

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Global tension affecting the space sector may create challenges that have an impact of people’s daily lives, a major space conference in Abu Dhabi has been told.

Officials at the Abu Dhabi Space Debate spoke on Monday about how the world is in a “new space age”, with private companies playing a crucial role.

Delegates from more than 50 space agencies and authorities attended the two-day event.

Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology and chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, said in her welcoming remarks that the sector was seeing many challenges.

There are growing concerns including mega-constellations of satellites that are crowding low-Earth orbit and countries increasingly looking to militarise space.

With the return of great power competition, and particularly the UN Security Council being more divided than it has ever been, it is difficult to see the kind of co-operation that there was in the 1990s and 2000s ever coming back
William Alberque of the International Institute for Strategic Studies

Experts are also concerned over whether there are the right regulations in place to police private companies aiming to commercialise low-Earth orbit.

“The impacts of these challenges will be felt way beyond the space sector and have the potential to touch people’s everyday lives around the world,” said Ms Al Amiri.

“I believe at least some of them to be potentially existential to our peaceful and collaborative exploration of the limitless exploration of space.

“There are new actors and new challenges. We have moved from the bipolar world of the Cold War and its space race to a multilateral world where some 70 nations are today considered space capable … where a fast-growing private sector is taking an increasing role and where global tensions have threatened some of the most cherished aspects of our great sector.”

She said that the most important piece of international legislation — the Outer Space Treaty by the UN — dates back to 1967.

The new US-led Artemis Accords — an international agreement that outlines peaceful exploration — has been signed by more than 20 countries, though it is not yet legally binding and mostly repeats the UN treaty.

Countries such as China and Russia are unlikely to sign, with the former Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin saying that the agreement was “too US-centric”.

William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that there was new international competition in space.

“With the return of great power competition, and particularly the UN Security Council being more divided than it has ever been, it is difficult to see the kind of co-operation that there was in the 1990s and 2000s ever coming back,” he said.

“At this point, the Russians have gone in their own direction in terms of international co-operation.

“China is seeking to become a pre-eminent power and seeking to contest the US position in predominance.

Omran Sharaf, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation for Advanced Science and Technology, among experts at the Abu Dhabi Space Debate on Monday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“We are looking at international competition and at the same time you’ve got massive involvement of smaller and medium size powers — not only nations but also industry.”

China is quickly emerging as a global space power, having completed its Tiangong space station in low-Earth orbit and achieving missions to the Moon and Mars.

Meanwhile, Russia has increasingly isolated itself in space due to sanctions placed on Moscow after it invaded Ukraine.

Countries militarising space are also a growing concern. They include nations that have anti-descent satellite testing capabilities. This means they can use missile technology to destroy spacecraft.

These tests can create a dangerous amount of space debris that can endanger astronauts and other spacecraft.

But experts fear the technology can also be used during wars.

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

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

China destroyed one of its satellites in 2007 and the US followed a year later with a similar operation.

But the US banned these tests earlier this year and is encouraging other nations to follow suit. So far, it has been joined by the UK, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Canada.

John Hill, deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Defence, said that the UN could help control the behaviour of countries.

“What we’re doing at the United Nations is not a focus on systems, it’s a focus on behaviour and destructive testing of direct descent anti-satellites,” he said.

“Many nations have missiles that could do that, so you can’t ban the system but you can try to control behaviour.

“We have to conduct ourselves in space different to the way we have on domains on Earth.”

Updated: December 06, 2022, 4:03 AM