24 Feb 2021

Threats to space aren’t just weapons

Victoria Samson
24 Feb 2021

Threats to space aren’t just weapons

Victoria Samson

Space has become more and more woven into the global society. Barriers to access have dropped, and many countries now have their own satellite programs. This allows for the benefits of space to be proliferated past the established space players and broadens them to encompass nations worldwide. Over 80 countries own or operate satellites now, and practically every person on the planet is a user of space data/services in some form or another.

Incorporating space into daily lives means interrupting this data has even more significant consequences than ever before. Because of the physics of space, actions by one actor can have repercussions for all. Hence, a truly global approach is needed to make space a reliable and predictable domain.

Space is also part of geopolitical competition, and threats to the security and stability of space can have severe and long-lasting consequences. It is not always the deliberate interruption of access to space capabilities that nations find threatening. Sometimes, the mere possibility of interference with this access can be destabilizing. Counter-space capabilities are a vital part of determining space security, but other trends also disrupt space stability.

These include the arrival of mega-constellations and a concurrent increase in the commercial sector’s importance in space. Stymied conversations in multilateral fora about how best to ensure the predictability of and access to space and new uses of space have pushed the existing space governance boundaries. Any disruption can cause instability and threaten space like a deliberately aggressive action.

Counter-space capabilities

As space becomes more enmeshed in national security and economic stability, there is an increasing interest in ensuring continued access to space. However, due to growing concerns that an adversary might deliberately target one’s satellites,  interest is growing globally in developing counter-space capabilities.

There are different types of counter-space weapons, from direct ascent and co-orbital to directed energy and electronic warfare to cyber.[1] While there are concerted and dedicated efforts among major space powers to develop and test counter-space capabilities, no kinetic weapons have been used in current armed conflicts. It is also pertinent to note that counter-space capabilities do not mean the deployment of actual weapons. Instead, it is meant to create the capacity for an offensive effort, should the interest arise. The counter-space capabilities broadly being used – not just by the major space powers – including electronic warfare, i.e., jamming and cyberattacks.

During the Cold War, the United States and the then-Soviet Union had active counter-space testing programs. Both these programs ended with the Cold War but have picked up again in recent years. China has been actively researching and testing some counter-space capabilities, while India tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in April 2019.

Perhaps even more telling is the move toward formalizing military space organizations. The United States’ Space Force is probably the most visible example of this; Russia and China have had similar organizations for years. India, France, and Japan have military space organizations, and other countries are undertaking domestic discussions to see if they should do the same.

Mega-constellations

Currently, around 3,500 active satellites are orbiting in space. In the past year alone, SpaceX launched over 1,000 satellites, so about one-quarter of all operational satellites are from one actor – a private actor, not a state actor.[2] Furthermore, if one looks at filings for spectrum, there is the potential for over 107,000 additional satellites by 2029.[3]

This is a massive increase in the number of active satellites. While not all of them are likely to come to fruition, a large fraction of that number may. This will affect space traffic considerations and vastly increase competition over the spectrum. However, there are even bigger concerns that have implications for the stability of space.

Allowing thousands of satellites from one company at a certain orbit essentially cedes that orbit to that company as space is a shared domain. While the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) does determine orbital slots, that is only at geostationary orbit, GEO. Mega-constellations are meant to be in low earth orbit, or LEO, where there is no international regulator of slots.

LEO mega-constellations also complicate end-of-life considerations. Right now, the space debris mitigation guidelines endorsed by the United Nations called for efforts to be taken 25 years after the satellite’s life is over: either to be deliberately de-orbited so it burns up in earth’s atmosphere. However, compliance with this 25-year rule is partial at best in LEO at present, which is not suitable for the domain’s stability.[4]

Additionally, the 25-year rule does not make sense for satellites whose lifespan is a handful of years. And even if the best practice is followed, it is hard to get rid of satellites that one cannot control. Historically, satellite constellations have about a 5 percent failure rate, which is not that bad when the constellation consists of maybe 20 satellites. But suppose your constellation consists of 40,000 satellites, which is what some of the operators are considering. In that case, 5 percent is suddenly a much higher number of essentially dead rocks cluttering up already-crowded orbits.

Another complication from mega-constellations is that the private sector, not nation-states, are launching them. While the commercial sector has long played a role in space, historically, space has been dominated by nation-states. But in a universe where there are tens of thousands of satellites launched by the private sector, commercial actors are now the primary stakeholders in space.

This is a fundamental shift in space and accordingly affects space governance discussions. This makes discussions of security issues challenging, as issues affecting international security are usually discussed in multilateral settings, i.e., the United Nations. SpaceX does not have a seat at the UN, though, nor do other commercial actors. Hence, it isn’t easy to ensure that their input is incorporated in international discussions on space security.

Stymied multilateral discussions of space security

An issue that hampers moving ahead with a common, multilateral approach to space security and stability is that roadblocks in the forum would be the obvious place for such discussions: The United Nations. The UN splits up its space discussions into civil space and security space. Civil space is dealt with via the 4th Committee, specifically via the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS). The security space issues are supposed to be dealt with via the 1st Committee.

However, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, which is where this security issue normally would be considered, is a consensus-driven institution and has not even agreed on an agenda for the past several decades. Other organizations in the UN have attempted to progress on this issue between 2017 and 2019, with little luck.[5]

The UN Disarmament Commission was supposed to take up security space issues but could not meet in 2019 due to visa issues for some of its participants. The CD had a subsidiary body that met six times in 2018 to try to deal with space security issues but could not agree on a final paper. A Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), called by the UN Secretary-General to discuss the prevention of an arms race in outer space, met in 2018-2019 and was unable to come to a final agreement.

Part of this problem is an inherent difference in how various factions perceive threats to space security and stability. Like Russia and China, there are those who focus on actual weapons being placed in orbit (i.e., space-based missile defense) as the biggest threat to deal with. Along those lines, Russia and China have been pushing for their draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) for going on 13 years now. The United States has criticized it for being shaped so that ground-based ASATs are permitted, yet there is no verification mechanism.[6]

Also, it approaches arms control in an increasingly outdated method when it comes to space: attempting to limit/stop a perceived threat by banning it via a treaty. Then there are those like the United States and its allies who believe that space security and stability are threatened not by technologies but rather a behavior. Asserting that the dual-use nature of technology in space means that it is the intent that matters, their focus has been instead to look at how one determines responsible behavior in space.

Accordingly, the United Kingdom promoted and succeeded in getting passed resolution 75/36 at the UN General Assembly in December 2020 with yes votes from 164 countries.[7] It calls for all member-states to report to the Secretary-General what they believe to be threats to space systems, how they define responsible behavior in orbit, and how norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior should be developed. These responses are due to the Secretary-General by May 2021, with the goal of him compiling them into a report to be released in time for the UNGA meetings in fall 2021.

The strong support for this resolution is striking for several reasons. First, it acknowledges that non-legally binding approaches have a place in discussing space security issues and allows for a move away from circular and non-productive arguments about treaty/no treaty, which has stymied the advancement of international negotiations on this matter. Second, it attempts to create a shared understanding as to what threatening behavior is on orbit so that the international community can call out violators when it happens or at least identify when behavior is atypical, whether it is being done with malfeasance or not. It is challenging to solve a problem when the major players cannot even agree on the problem.

While this approach is still in its early stages, it has the potential to allow for progress. And while international agreement on what constitutes responsible behavior in space, if it happens, may take a while, consensus will be likely. It took the better part of a decade for the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (CUPUOS) delegations to come to an agreement in 2019 on 21 guidelines that promote the long-term sustainability of outer space.[8]

These guidelines are civil in nature and were less controversial than those with security elements. However, given that COPUOS is also a consensus-driven organization, this meant that all 92 members (at that time) had to agree to the guidelines. This included countries as disparate as the United States, Russia, China, and Iran. So non-legally binding agreements are possible when it comes to space governance.

New uses of space

As humanity continues to evolve its uses and what it does in space, there will be emerging complications that stress the edges of space governance. But it will also be essential to sort those issues if we are to expand in our new uses of space. One of those areas is active debris removal (ADR). Right now, there are about 26,000 pieces of debris 10 cm in diameter or larger that the US military is tracking in earth orbit as part of its space situational awareness.

Plus, hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces cannot be seen but given the very high orbital speeds that they are traveling could prove catastrophic if they collided with an active satellite or – even worse – with the International Space Station (ISS) or another spaceship carrying humans. There are orbital debris mitigation guidelines that exist, but they are insufficient to ensure that popular orbits (particularly in LEO) do not become unduly cluttered with debris.

Mitigation of debris, or deliberately removing it, is needed, but technical, legal, and political complications exist. First off, it is up for debate whether it is better to focus on removing large or small objects – companies are developing the technology for both approaches, but they are in the very early stages of doing so. Furthermore, satellites were not designed to be removed from orbit, so they lack things that would make removal easier (like grappling hooks) and often spinning, making attaching difficult.

Legally, there is no right to salvage in space, so if an object’s owner is unknown, it is unclear what sort of liability the debris remover might bring upon themselves if they attempt to remove debris unilaterally. If the owner is known, the question is who pays for the debris removal if the owner does not desire it – are certain orbits of space considered a public good? Is there a spaceflight safety argument to be made for ADR, and if so, again, who pays?

Finally, geopolitical rivalry may affect effective ADR. Most of the mass on orbit is from Russian rockets: would Moscow authorize an ADR operation by a Western country? Would there be national security concerns or even intellectual property considerations? Rendezvous and proximity operations that are non-consensual are generally perceived to be at best, a bad idea, and at worse, potentially a prelude to deliberate and aggressive interference.

The Artemis Accords is a positive step taken to improve space governance and work toward a more predictable and stable domain. The Accords spell out principles that the United States wishes to promote as space exploration takes humanity back to the Moon and beyond. Taken largely from the Outer Space Treaty’s core elements, supplemented with a few newer concepts like transparency, interoperability, and deconfliction of activities, the Artemis Accords were released in October 2020 with eight signatories, including the UAE. A ninth signatory has since come on board.[9]

While the Accords came about during the Trump administration, it appears that the new Biden administration will continue to support and promote them.

Where do we go from here?

The threat to space assets is not just weapons pointed at satellites. Any major disruption to how space is used or approached has the potential to interfere with continued access to space assets. While the growing interest in counter-space programs is a trend worth monitoring, there are other changes in how we use space that can be equally destabilizing. Our approach to space security and stability needs to evolve to incorporate these new characteristics of space and adequately meet these security challenges so that space is accessible to and usable over the long-term.


References

[1] For a longer discussion of the various types of counter-space capabilities, including breakdowns by country, please see Global Counter-space Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment, ed. by Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, Secure World Foundation, April 2020, https://swfound.org/counterspace

[2] Anthony Cuthbertson, “Elon Musk Now Controls Over A Quarter of All Active Satellites As Spacex Prepares To Launch 1,000th Starlink,” The Independent, February 2, 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/elon-musk-starlink-satellites-spacex-b1794888.html

[3] “107,000 Planned Satellites by 2029,” AGI, July 29, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWB7ZySDHg8

[4] Doug Messier, “The Current State of Space Debris,” Parabolic Arc, Oct. 13, 2020, http://www.parabolicarc.com/2020/10/13/the-current-state-of-space-debris/

[5] Daniel Porras, “PAROS and STM in the UN: More Than Just Acronym Soup” (presentation, UT Austin/Space Traffic Management Conference, Feb. 27, 2019), https://commons.erau.edu/stm/2019/presentations/22/

[6] Jeff Foust, “US Dismisses Space Weapons Treaty Proposal As ‘Fundamentally Flawed,’” Space News, September 11, 2014, https://spacenews.com/41842us-dismisses-space-weapons-treaty-proposal-as-fundamentally-flawed/

[7] Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors, UNGA Res. 75/36, adopted Dec. 7, 2020, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3895440?ln=en

[8] “Guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities of the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space adopted,” UNOOSA Press Release, June 22, 2019, https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/informationfor/media/2019-unis-os-518.html. NB: the working group chair who led those discussions was Peter Martinez, who is currently the executive director of the author’s organization, the Secure World Foundation

[9] “NASA, International Partners Advance Cooperation with First Signings of Artemis Accords,” NASA Press Release 20-097, October 13, 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-international-partners-advance-cooperation-with-first-signings-of-artemis-accords

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