2056 satellites were placed in orbit around Earth in 2022. Ten years ago, there were only a hundred. Of these 5.7 satellites launched on average per day, most belong to SpaceX, which already has 45% of all active satellites in low orbit. If the conquest of space was once a major geopolitical issue for states, they have abandoned the sector in recent years, leaving the private sector with an increasingly important role.
Billionaires Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) have established themselves as emblematic actors of what is now called “New Space”. But if the space industry becomes a (promising) market like any other, how is it regulated? And besides, is it really? To respond to this, GÉO spoke with Christophe Bonnal, an expert in the launchers department at the National Center for Space Studies and author of the book “Space Pollution: The State of Emergency”, published in 2016.
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SpaceX alone plans to send 42,000 satellites into orbit for its Starlink constellation. Your objective ? Secure a top spot in the industry by providing broadband internet coverage to a large number of users. Far from being disinterested, the operation allows you to collect user data and acquire a certain power of influence. And for good reason, as the war in Ukraine recently reminded us, satellites can be used for military purposes. At the behest of Ukraine’s Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, Elon Musk deployed satellites from his Starlink constellation over Ukraine, providing ground, naval and air military support while infrastructure communications were destroyed.
The year 2015 marked a historic turning point in the space sector, with the implementation of the “Space Act” in the United States. While until then outer space could not be appropriated (Treaty of 67), the Space Law opened the use of space resources to private companies. The following year, investors poured in $1.8 billion, nearly double the amount of funds in the past 15 years combined. In the same year, NASA’s budget, which represented 4.4% of the total US federal budget in 1965, dropped to 0.50%. There was therefore a real opening for private actors who now seem to take precedence over government space agencies. But concretely, what laws govern space?
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Interview with Christophe Bonnal from the National Center for Space Studies
Faced with the evolution of technological means and the growing involvement of private actors who invest in space, has the 1967 treaty, which defines space as a “province of humanity” and establishes the principle of non-appropriation, become obsolete?
You should know that the 1967 treaty, like UN treaties in general, have no legal force, they are simple general principles. They are still valid, but like any principle they can be distorted if necessary. This can be problematic due to the proliferation of private players such as Starlink and others. However, there are 3 levels of rules:
- 1. International recommendations
There’s the high-level bible: the Interagency Space Debris Coordinating Committee (IACD), which includes the European Space Agency and the Russian and Japanese civil space agencies. They issue engineering recommendations which, however, are also not legally binding. The UN has also made its own recommendations, such as the Treaty of 67 and, more recently, the Land Terms Soc (LTS), ratified by 130 countries. But again, these are just recommendations.
For example, there is the ISO standard; that is, we establish general rules. Some do, some don’t. The positive thing is that we have an ISO 24113 standard that covers everything we should adopt in 2010, and which was revised in 2017, and again recently. The idea would be for everyone to adopt it, but it has not yet been systematized.
So far there is only one in this case and that is the French Space Operations Act (LOS) passed in 2008 and came into force in 2010. This is a positive step because we are a forerunner at this level compared to the rest of the world. This implies that any space operation under French responsibility is subject to compliance with this law. It applies at European level, but we are the only ones to have a law to date. Let’s hope it inspires other countries.
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The Space Act adopted in the United States in 2015 opened the use of space resources to private companies, which was a true turning point in space exploration. What consequences or issues does this raise from an ethical and environmental point of view?
The Space Act is arguably a “breach” of the UN space treaties, stating that space resources are common property and therefore do not belong to anyone. In space, there are different types of resources: water (through the ice present in quantity on the Moon and which could be exploited before 2030), rare metals such as nickel (in asteroids) or precious materials. Companies are therefore free to extract them and send them to Earth.
In fact, this involves more complex operations than it seems, but what is certain is that, with the Space Act, the United States counted on a loophole in the treaties, arguing that these apply to States, not to individuals. And although there can be no appropriation (Editor’s Note: Treaty of 67), it is easy to imagine that if a company drills in such a place to extract such material, it does not intend to have its drilling site stolen the next day by another… So far, this kind of potentially conflicting situation has yet to arise. On the other hand, it has already happened that the United States has claimed full protection of the 6 Apollo landing zones, for which it wanted to obtain the status of a national park. In my opinion, the reason why they are returning to the Moon is mainly because of the fear that a Chinese astronaut will return with their flag, but yes, there is a desire to circumvent the resolutions, and we let that happen.
You worked and wrote a book on the issue of space pollution in 2016. About 131 million pieces of waste orbit the Earth, according to estimates by the European Space Agency. Did the rules change today or can someone send something into space?
There are 2 aspects to launches: the objects that will land on asteroids. These, we keep an eye on, but they don’t present as many risks. And the objects that we throw, which arouse our attention the most. Because, apart from France, there is no law of what we release there. If tomorrow I want to launch my washing machine from such and such a country, it’s possible! More and more operators are launching CHIPSat, microsatellites of microchips. We have regulations at an international level that we’ve been working on for years. Since 1987, the same thing has been repeated in relation to space pollution and the risks associated with it. But we reproduce the same pattern as on Earth. Regulations are respected by only 20% of operators. There is no limit to the space usage level. The Falcon 9, for example, has an upper stage that weighs between 5 and 6 tons and that randomly returns to Earth… Therefore, it can not only cause collisions in orbit, but also pose a danger to Earth.
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Some experts even compare the current conquest of space with the colonization process, in particular through the partnership that operates between the private sector and the State, does the analogy seem fair to you?
Absolutely, and that goes for all state space agencies. The purpose of agencies is to develop activities, explore, establish new solutions, etc., but once it works, they must come. We play a role in preparing space for the private sector, and startups are taking that role. At CNES, we founded Arianeespace in 1982, which worked very well, then we left it to the private sector🇧🇷 And it’s the same operation for NASA, they set up the means and technologies financed with taxpayer money and when the systems work, they bequeath them to the private sector. The agency no longer deals with low orbits, which are exclusively for the private sector. Result: when it sends astronauts there, SpaceX provides the equipment.
In short, it seems that there remains a virtual legal void in the framework of the exploration and use of space, would you say that space is an area of illegality?
Personally, I find the expression a bit excessive. I prefer to say that it is an area of law that is not respected or a breach of the law. However, there are strong regulations since 1995 at an international level, as well as a standard (ISO) dedicated to all launchers. Although it is not systematically respected, more and more States understand that it is of common interest. Recently, a law was passed in Japan, for example. As a reminder, we cannot issue international laws. All international regulations must be transposed into national law to be applicable, for any country. The only way to get out of it and move in the right direction, especially with regard to space junk, is for each country to adopt a piece of law.
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