The human presence in outer space has changed in the past ten years. Image: Unsplash/nasa
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- Human activity in space is increasingly posing the risk of collisions and conflict.
- More than 6,700 satellites are now in orbit around the world.
- The UN wants to see regulation to prevent an arms race in space.
It wasn’t so long ago that space was an empty void stretching out into infinity. Not so anymore.
Our demand for television services, navigation tools, data, images and universal internet connection means Earth’s immediate orbit is packed with thousands of satellites. Beyond the realms of satellites, there’s talk of building human colonies on Mars and mining asteroids for minerals and precious metals.
That’s raising concerns at the United Nations (UN) that regulation needs to catch up with plans to exploit space and its resources.
In a recent report For All Humanity – the Future of Outer Space Governance, the UN says: “The human presence in outer space has fundamentally changed in the past 10 years, and this change is likely to accelerate in the coming decades. We need to develop further the existing governance so that we can sustainably accelerate innovation and discovery.”
The new space race
The statistics behind this statement are startling. The UN report notes that “the number of satellites launched into outer space has increased at an exponential rate from 210 in 2013 to 600 in 2019, to 1,200 in 2020, and to 2,470 in 2022.”
These recent launches are adding to the congestion in low-Earth orbit. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) keeps a database of all satellites deployed. Its latest update shows there are 6,718 operational satellites in orbit around the Earth.
Using data from the UCS, Statista has analyzed which countries have the most satellites up in space.
The United States is by far the largest operator with 3,415 satellites deployed. China is a relatively distant second, with 535. The UK has launched 486 satellites into space and Russia has 170.
The benefits of regulating space
The proliferation of satellites poses an ever greater risk of collision which threatens confrontation between nations. Collisions also add to the existing large mass of space debris already a serious threat to space vehicles.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Space has made a series of recommendations on mitigating the threat from space junk. These include collision avoidance mechanisms, the removal of obsolete satellites from low-Earth orbit and insurance to cover losses incurred by satellites being hit by space debris.
How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?
Regulating space for the benefit of all
In addition to the practical and operational safety reasons for stronger space regulation, the benefits to humanity are a driving force behind the push for new measures.
Firstly, space operations can greatly contribute to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The UN's report highlights that “space technology and applications are crucial for effective climate action, including climate change monitoring, weather forecasting, disaster management and response, mapping and monitoring natural and protected areas, monitoring illegal fishing, assessing marine and coastal health and identifying algal blooms”.
Other areas in which space technology can be used include urban planning and helping in the creation and operation of smart, sustainable cities.
The UN also proposes a new tranche of regulations to prevent an arms race in space that could seriously threaten peace and stability.
Summarizing the risks and opportunities in space, the organization says: “There is no agreed international framework on space resource exploration, exploitation and utilization, and no mechanism to support its future implementation. There are significant economic incentives for exploitation of space resources, but there is also a potential risk of conflict, environmental degradation and cultural loss.”
The report concludes in an optimistic tone, predicting that “the effective governance of outer space will enable a renewed spirit of inspiration and discovery for humanity, and will inspire a new generation of spacefarers”.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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