Humans have been inspired by space exploration for decades but growing commercial and geopolitical interests are increasingly influencing this frontier. While early space activity was conducted or funded by the public sector, the last decade has seen growing private investment. New commercial entrants are disrupting traditional incumbents’ control in delivering satellite services, especially in internet-related communications or launch services. Some governments are encouraging private space activity to further national “territorial” claims or to foster the development of high-value jobs, especially in the zone of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or Medium Earth Orbit (MEO),i as well as enhancing their military or defense-oriented presence. Increased exploitation of these orbits carries the risk of congestion, an increase in debris, and the possibility of collisions in a realm with few governance structures to mitigate new threats.
The traditional Geostationary Orbit (GEO) commercial satellite market, which has dominated the communications sector for decades, is now losing commercial value because of competition from new players seeking to provide services from LEO or MEO.1 More recently, in the last decade, the financing of new applications for space-based initiatives has grown fast: businesses, start-ups, and research entities are proliferating, raising money in the billions, and thereby driving down the cost of launch systems, particularly in LEO (see Figure 5.1).2 Lower costs bring more opportunity for a greater diversity of actors to launch constellations of smaller satellites. With this more cost-effective access to space, attention is increasingly shifting to new opportunities in areas such as hyperspectral remote sensing, energy generation, manufacturing, mining and tourism.3 However, the largest growth is still expected to come from industries that are already expanding digital connectivity on Earth, such as direct-to-consumer broadband access.4
Space programmes are still widely seen as a sign of national prestige, as they project geopolitical and military power as well as have scientific and commercial significance. Powers such as China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Japan, NATO, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States have publicly announced space forces and continue to build space infrastructure, with plans for at least five new space stations by 2030 in the works.5 The first commercial space station is also slated for completion in the next decade.6 Next-step deep space exploration projects are under development, such as the United States-led Artemis programme—which aims to reopen exploration of the Moon and eventually develop outposts on Mars and asteroids.7 In addition, new space-faring powers will emerge as more economies begin to see opportunities to expand both geopolitical and commercial influence in this arena. Among countries that have expressed interest are Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico in Latin America; Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates in Africa and the Middle East; and Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam in the Asia-Pacific region.8
Alongside new programme development, the critical infrastructure on which many civil and commercial entities rely must be maintained and secured.9 Satellites in LEO as well as in MEO and GEO are used for multiple purposes that include climate and natural resource monitoring, broadband internet, and radio and television broadcasting, as well as position, navigation, and timing services.10 While this infrastructure will continue to remain vital for governments, businesses, and societies, it is also creating opportunities for nations with an advanced space industry, supported by national-level regulation, to stake claims to specific orbital sectors by virtue of first-mover advantage.11 Finally, space will continue to be of critical military importance: armed forces have long relied on space-based or space-supported technologies—including Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation, dedicated military satellite-based communications for secure digital connectivity and spy satellites for intelligence—making such systems tempting military targets and spurring the need for enhanced defensive measures.12
A greater number and diversity of actors operating in space could generate new or exacerbate old frictions if not responsibly managed. The trend in commercial, civil and military sectors is to replace traditionally large and expensive single geostationary satellite systems with a more distributed system of multiple smaller satellites in LEO. Approximately 11,000 satellites have been launched since Sputnik 1 in 1957, but 70,000 more could enter orbit in the coming decades if proposed plans play out.13 The vast majority of these new planned and approved satellites will be launched by a handful of operators that will have increasing influence over the regulatory landscape.
Once in orbit, and unless actively decommissioned, many of these satellites could remain in space for hundreds of years.14 Smaller, low-cost satellites are also proliferating because of lower costs and fewer barriers to entry.15 While the risk is still relatively low, an increase in the number of satellites also increases the opportunity for collisions, or, at the least, a need to engage in emergency maneuvers to avoid contact.
Collisions could hinder future space development or aggravate international tensions. This is because when objects in space collide, they may break up and produce debris that—even at sizes of 1 to 5 centimetres in diameter—could cause severe damage.16 For example, the International Space Station (ISS) was damaged in May 2021 when a piece of debris penetrated its robotic arm.17 Such strikes have been documented for decades, but they may become more frequent. One theory, known as the “Kessler Effect” (see Box 5.1), posits the potential consequences of a cascading effect.18 Estimates put the current number of smaller pieces of debris (larger than 1 centimetre in size) at nearly a million,19 while larger objects over 10 centimetres number in the thousands (see Figure 5.2). Providing orbital servicing and debris removal could, however, help alleviate some of the worst consequences.20 Tracking debris is a critical tool in preventing collision or damage, but it will need to become increasingly sophisticated to maintain reliability in a more congested realm.
With such possibilities becoming likelier in a congested space, the lack of updated international rules around space activity increases the risk of potential clashes. The most relevant of space agreements, the Outer Space Treaty, was concluded in 1967 and still, through the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), governs much of the activity taking place in space. However, few effective governance tools have emerged in recent years to reflect new realities, such as the pressing need for an authority to govern satellite launches and servicing, space traffic control and common enforcement principles.21
As an exemplar challenge, the 1972 Space Liability Convention—which governs international responsibility for space objects launched from Earth—lacks precision around hybrid aircraft and rocket transport systems. For example, different legal authorities may govern depending on whether a vehicle is deemed to have launched when an aircraft takes off with a rocket attached or when the rocket detaches from the aircraft—and whether the hybrid vehicle is an aircraft or spacecraft while both pieces are attached. New addenda may be needed to clarify when space law should supersede aviation law.22 Even the most robust governance realm, electromagnetic spectrum management, which is governed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), faces serious crowding pressures with new satellite systems and increased competition in the terrestrial spectrum usage of emerging 5G technologies.23
Respondents to the Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) reflect these gaps: 76 percent of respondents characterized the current state of international risk mitigation efforts in space as either “not started” or in “early development”.
Governments, too, have developed their own national space policies, with commercial interests as a key pillar of their national strategies, alongside national security and civil space policy.24 Although many governments have cooperated behind the scenes historically and still do today,25 there is significant policy divergence among the 28 nations with space regulation,26 and countries now operate at different scales and with different levels of ambition.27 Such fragmentation compromises the further development of beneficial commercial space activities, which require shared norms across states to be able to function.28
National space ambitions also bring a growing risk of the militarization of space. The US military created a Space Force as a separate branch of its armed services in 2019, while Japan’s Space Operations Squadron and the United Kingdom’s Space Command were both created in the last two years. Other leading armed forces also now typically include a space component—for instance, in 2021, the French Air Force became the Air and Space Force (Armée de l’Air & de l’Espace). In November of 2021, an anti-satellite weapon's test conducted by Russia created significant debris and threatened astronauts on the ISS.29 Other countries have conducted similar testing, raising the spectre of repeat occurrences from other nations, which would add considerably to the problem of space debris (see Figure 5.2).ii A hypersonic weapons arms race also risks contributing to the militarization of space—China, Russia, and the United States are all developing such weapons and each tested them in the second half of 2021.30 And with expanding geospatial intelligence, all of Earth is observable by satellites, which could spur some nations to blind, jam or otherwise interfere with satellite Earth observation.31 As technology advances, space mineral exploitation—already heralded as part of some deep-space exploration programmes—could also be viewed as another competitive wedge over a more distant horizon.32
Gaps in space governance render arms races even more likely. For example, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits nuclear weapons in space but does not address conventional weapons, which is particularly worrisome in today’s context of conventional weapons development and testing in space. New rules are unlikely in the near future, as there is little agreement over key issues such as boundaries, control over space objects or dual-use systems.33 Any further decline in cooperation on space governance will only exacerbate risks.34
Service disruption and environmental unknowns: Consequences for people.
Societies are dependent on space infrastructure in myriad everyday ways. GPS satellites not only allow for safe navigation in the air, land and sea, but they also underpin financial transactions, data transmissions and energy control systems. Threats—such as a massive solar storm or jamming or spoofing of GPS satellites—could cause the internet to slow, navigation systems to fail and controls for energy grids, water, or transportation to crash. Ripple effects across societies could be extensive, even for a few seconds of disruption.35
There are also significant unknowns about the impacts of rapid space development on Earth’s environment—including damage to the ozone layer, butterfly effects from black carbon (soot) emissions, and possible alterations of the polar jet stream.36 Of course, technological advances, such as developments in space-based solar power, could offset many of the potential negative environmental impacts of growing space exploration and exploitation.37
Gravitational push and pull: Consequences for governments.
Notwithstanding high levels of private sector investment, increased commercialization and growing geopolitical competition will demand higher government spending on space programmes and defence at a time when public finances are under greater pressure due to the economic overhang of COVID-19 (see Chapter 1). For example, governments will increasingly need to compete for talent, with private sector entities offering more lucrative employment packages. Defence agencies will need to continue to expend resources to defend against more-sophisticated space-based weaponry and increasingly effective space-based tools of statecraft, such as enhanced surveillance or espionage.
Yet, for a large majority of governments, space technology, and access will remain out of reach altogether at a time when reliance on space technologies is growing for all. Forty-one nations have registered space agencies with UNOOSA,38 yet the many governments not represented will continue to struggle to develop their capacities or earn a seat at the table in key decision-making processes. Without concerted effort to facilitate inclusive growth in the space realm, inequalities in the commercial and geopolitical benefits accruing from space development will only grow.
Opportunity blocks: Consequences for businesses.
Venture financing flooded into the space industry following the successful launches of commercial space flights. As commercial activity in space grows, more companies could crop up seeking entry while investor interest is high. However, if manufacturing, tourism or other space ventures fail to take flight, speculators and space industry companies could see their bubble burst. Similarly, grassroots campaigns to ban space pollution and prevent privatization of important science data could give investors pause, stifling the unmitigated venture financing in the field.39
Although space represents yet another realm in which geopolitical and commercial tensions will play out, important traditions of cooperation in this arena should not be forgotten. Norms of behaviour established through voluntary measures that are not legally binding with the goal of building trust and establishing mutual understanding have helped mitigate escalating tensions in the past. While this trend could continue, more robust formal governance will be required in a more crowded and competitive space. Specific and functional bilateral or multilateral agreements between major space powers could help create norms and influence broader global behaviours. Space situational awareness, space traffic management and debris mitigation are areas in which norms-based and eventually formal international agreements would benefit all actors. Critically, and like other realms where technology is developing at a faster pace than its regulation, bringing private sector actors into the agreement processes will help ensure that such pacts reflect both commercial and technical realities. Taking advantage of these opportunities to achieve widely accepted norms could then help facilitate discussions around more challenging issues in space, such as limits on weaponization, ownership and appropriate venues from which to govern the realm.
1: Fildes, N. 2021. “Satellite groups face race to scale up or become space junk: Billionaire enthusiasts and new technology have brought valuations down to earth in a fragmented market”. Financial Times. 14 November 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/138b3f58-cdad-484f-b180-ce0b96bb7028
2: Taylor, D. 2020. “Democratizing space exploration with new technologies”. The Space Review. 17 February 2020. https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3883/1; Woo, E. 2021. “Start-ups aim beyond Earth”. The New York Times. 7 July 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/07/technology/space-start-ups.html
3: Morgan Stanley. 2020. “Space: Investing in the Final Frontier”. 24 July 2020. https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/investing-in-space; Stutt, A. 2020. “The global race to mine outer space”. Mining.com. 22 May 2020. https://www.mining.com/the-global-race-to-mine-outer-space/;
Woo. 2021. Op. cit.
4: Morgan Stanley. 2020. Op. cit.
5: Gabbat, A. 2021. “US accuses Russia of ‘dangerous’ behavior after anti-satellite weapons test”. The Guardian. 15 November 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/nov/15/us-investigating-debris-event-space-reports-russia-anti-satellite-weapon-test; Jones, A. 2021. “China’s Tiangong space station”. Space. 24 August 2021. https://www.space.com/tiangong-space-station; Rome, N. 2021. “Growth of space and lunar stations: Promise amidst geopolitical risk”. Georgetown Security Studies Review. 14 July 2021. https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2021/07/14/growth-of-space-and-lunar-stations-promise-amidst-geopolitical-risk/
6: Rome. 2021. Op. cit.
7: NASA. 2021. Artemis Mission. https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/
8: European Space Policy Institute. 2021. Emerging Spacefaring Nations. June 2021. https://espi.or.at/publications/espi-public-reports/category/2-public-espi-reports; Goswami, N. 2021. “Status of existing and emerging Asia-Pacific space powers capabilities”. Nautilus Institute. 20 August 2021. https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/status-of-existing-and-emerging-asia-pacific-space-powers-capabilities/
9: Buchs, R. 2021. “Intensifying space activity calls for increased scrutiny of risks”. EPFL. 14 April 2021. https://www.epfl.ch/research/domains/irgc/spotlight-on-risk-series/intensifying-space-activity-calls-for-increased-scrutiny-of-risks/
11: Davis, G. 2021. “SpaceX’s competitors claim Elon Musk could monopolize space”. Tech Times. 29 May 2021.
12: Broad, W.J. 2021. “How space became the next ‘great power’ contest between the U.S. and China”. The New York Times. 6 May 2021.
13: Daehnick, C. and Harrington, J. 2021. “Look out below: What will happen to the space debris in orbit?” McKinsey & Company. 1 October 2021. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/aerospace-and-defense/our-insights/look-out-below-what-will-happen-to-the-space-debris-in-orbit; Jones, A. 2021. “China is developing plans for a 13,000-satellite mega constellation”. SpaceNews. 21 April 2021. https://spacenews.com/china-is-developing-plans-for-a-13000-satellite-communications-megaconstellation/; Spiegel Business. 2021. “Bezos’ space company is planning a private space station –slightly smaller than the ISS”. Spiegel Business. 25 October 2021. https://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/jeff-bezos-plant-private-raumstation-orbital-reef-etwas-kleiner-als-die-iss-a-1779efd7-6ee6-4c92-9986-7fc996951e8f
14: Daehnick, C. and Harrington, J. 2021. “Look out below: What will happen to the space debris in orbit?” McKinsey & Company. 1 October 2021.
15: NASA. 2021. State-of-the-ArtSmall Spacecraft Technology. October 2021.
16: Nature. 2021. “The world must cooperate to avoid a catastrophic space collision”. Nature. 11 August 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02167-5
17: Strickland, A. 2021. “Space junk hit the International Space Station, damaging a robotic arm”. CNN. 1 June 2021. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/01/world/iss-orbital-debris-robotic-arm-scn/index.html
18: Hyde, J. L., Christiansen, E.L. and Lear, D.M. 2019. “Observations of MMOD Impact Damages to the ISS”. NASA. 9 December 2019. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20190033989; Kessler, DJ. and Cour-Palais, B.G. 1978. "Collision frequency of artificial satellites: The creation of a debris belt". Journal of Geophysical Research. 83 (A6): 2637–2646. Bibcode: 1978JGR....83.2637K. https://doi:10.1029/JA083iA06p02637. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-15
19: The European Space Agency. 2021. “Space debris by the numbers”. 22 December 2021.
20: Rooney, K. 2021. “The big space clean-up –and why it matters”. World Economic Forum Global Agenda. 20 May 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/space-junk-clean-satellite/; Kwan, R. and Henley, J. 2021. “China berates US after ‘close encounters’ with Elon Musk satellites”. The Guardian. 28 December 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/dec/28/china-complains-to-un-after-space-station-is-forced-to-move-to-avoid-starlink-satellites
21: Stuart, J. 2017. “The Outer Space Treaty has been remarkably successful –but is it fit for the modern age?”. The Conversation. 27 January 2017.
22: Li, C. and Wang, G. 2021. “Applicability of the Liability Convention for Private Spaceflight”. Space: Science & Technology. 4 May 2021.
23: Panhans, D., Schicht, R., Hamady, F. and Werlé, T. 2020. “The Coming Battle for Spectrum”. 11 February 2020.
24: See, e.g., U.S. Office of the Vice-President. 2021. “United States Space Priorities Framework.” 1 December 2021.
25: Marshall W. and Hadfield, C. 2021. “Why the U.S. and China should collaborate in space”. Time. 15 April 2021. https://time.com/5954941/u-s-china-should-collaborate-in-space/; Shackelford, S. 2019. “Renewed space rivalry between nations ignores a tradition of cooperation”. The Conversation. 10 January 2019. https://theconversation.com/renewed-space-rivalry-between-nations-ignores-a-tradition-of-cooperation-108810
26: Goguichvili, S., Linenberger, A. and Gillette, A. 2021. “The Global Legal Landscape of Space: Who Writes the Rules on the Final Frontier?” 1 October 2021. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/global-legal-landscape-space-who-writes-rules-final-frontier
27: European Space Policy Institute. 2021. “Emerging Spacefaring Nations”. June 2021. https://espi.or.at/publications/espi-public-reports/category/2-public-espi-reports
28: Goguichvili, Linenberger and Gillette. 2021. Op. cit.
29: Gabbat, A. 2021. “US accuses Russia of ‘dangerous’ behavior after anti-satellite weapons test”. The Guardian. 15 November 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/nov/15/us-investigating-debris-event-space-reports-russia-anti-satellite-weapon-test; Rincon, P. and Amos, J. 2021. “Russian anti-satellite test adds to worsening problem of space debris”. BBC. 16 November 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-59307862
30: Sevastopulo, D. and Hille, K. 2021. “China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile”. Financial Times. 16 October 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/ba0a3cde-719b-4040-93cb-a486e1f843fb; Stone, M. 2021. “U.S. in hypersonic weapon 'arms race' with China -Air Force secretary”. Reuters.1 December 2021. https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/us-hypersonic-weapon-arms-race-with-china-air-force-secretary-2021-11-30/; Reuters. 2021. “Russia conducts test launch of hypersonic missile -Interfax”.
24 December 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-conducts-test-launch-hypersonic-missile-interfax-2021-12-24/
31: Vinci, A. 2020. “The coming revolution in intelligence affairs”. Foreign Affairs. 31 August 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-america/2020-08-31/coming-revolution-intelligence-affairs
32: Stutt, A. 2020. “The global race to mine outer space”. Mining.com. 22 May 2020. https://www.mining.com/the-global-race-to-mine-outer-space/
33: Pozdnyakova, G. 2021. “Top-10 themes for 2022: Space: a worrying geopolitical frontier”. Deutsch Bank. 8 December 2021.
34: Panda, A. 2021.“Military Competition, New Technologies, and Space”. An Asian Space Odyssey. March 2021. Diplomat Risk Intelligence.
35: Scott, C. 2018. “The violent solar storms that threaten Earth”. BBC. 22 November 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46260959; Tullis, P. 2019. “GPS is easy to hack, and the U.S. has no back-up”. Scientific American. 1 December 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gps-is-easy-to-hack-and-the-u-s-has-no-backup/
36: Ross, M. and Vedda, J.A. 2018. “The Policy and Science of Rocket Emissions”. Center for Space Policy and Strategy.31 March 2018.
37: David, L. 2021. “Space solar power’s time may finally be coming”. Space.com. 3 November 2021. https://www.space.com/space-solar-power-research-advances
38: UNOOSA (United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs). https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/space-agencies.html, accessed 15 December 2021.
39: Szkutak, R. 2021. “The billionaire space race launches a new venture capital solar system”. Forbes. 16 September 2021.
40: Khodairy, S., Sharaf, M., Awad, M., Hamed, R.A. and Hussein, M. 2020. "Impact of solar activity on Low Earth Orbiting satellites’. Journal of Physics: Conference Series 1523(1): 012010. IOP Publishing. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1742-6596/1523/1/012010/pdf