Can better governance help space lift off?

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As space around Earth becomes an increasingly congested and contested domain, its system of governance experiences new growing pains. If these pain points are not addressed, they could limit the sustainable use and development of space.

To identify these specific challenges, we mapped global space governance institutions across a range of space law and policy topics (see sidebar, “Building on existing space institutions,” for more information). In doing so, we have identified five issues (not exhaustive) that could have a significant impact on the development of the space economy:

  1. Unintentional interference: The temporary or permanent disruption of another space operator’s activities.
  2. Safe operations: Threats to space infrastructure and human space travelers, resulting from the natural and human-made hazards of the space environment.
  3. Property rights and usage: Legal issues relating to the use and sale of human-made space objects, resources, and intellectual property derived from space activities.
  4. Liability: The lack of clarity and agreement surrounding responsibility for damages caused in space or on Earth by space objects.
  5. Data use and sharing: The challenge of sharing and exploiting data in a secure and equitable manner.

This article explores the first three issues: interference, safe operations, and property rights and usage.

Unintentional interference

Unintentional interference with other missions or devices is likely to occur in space, especially as activity there increases.

The rise of 5G and growing mobile data usage is one interference pain point. Frequencies currently used for a variety of space-based applications including weather, navigation, and national security could be affected by increasing 5G and mobile use. To date, the aerospace industry has yet to agree on the best way to accurately gauge this risk.1

Some experts suggest engaging the satellite industry and mobile communications providers on how to balance the goals of incumbent and emerging spectrum users in a way that minimizes the risks of interference at a frequency-specific level.2Spectrum wars with author Jennifer Manner,” The Space Policy Show, The Aerospace Corporation Center for Space Policy and Strategy, March 3, 2022. A cost-benefit analysis focused on spectrum-sharing and the reallocation of satellite spectrums to terrestrial wireless services could help guide this discussion.3

Lunar exploration is another area where we could see more interference. In the near future, increasing lunar congestion could boost the possibility of signals interference, landing zone conflicts, and damage caused by landing debris and dust.

The lack of coordination between national and multilateral lunar exploration programs raises the risk of interference, which may be misinterpreted in the absence of communication and trust.

The establishment of lunar behavioral norms among civil, military, and commercial space actors could reduce interference risk.4 It may also be possible to reduce the risk of conflict by using data-driven pathways to define and optimize lunar safety zones, although some experts feel that such zones would constitute appropriation of territory and thus violate a core tenet of the Outer Space Treaty (OST).5

Space science could also face interference issues. In low Earth orbit (LEO), for example, bright satellites interfere with ground-based astronomical observations—a trend likely to worsen in coming years as satellite constellations expand. Similar issues are unfolding in lunar exploration, where upcoming missions may cause electromagnetic interference with future lunar surface radio astronomy observatories.

The Space Generation Advisory Council has suggested establishing a list of internationally recognized lunar scientific sites.6 Other experts advocate for the establishment of a radio contamination-free zone on the far side of the moon within a lunar crater that protects against electromagnetic interference.7

Successful initiatives to minimize interference can boost transparency, accountability, and trust among spacefaring nations, which in turn can decrease the likelihood of negative consequences from any interference that does take place.

Safe operations

The rise of commercial space and new use cases for space exploration has raised additional safety concerns. Measures to decrease safety risks could help sustain ongoing investment.

Space tourism has sparked a dialogue on space safety and who is legally considered an “astronaut.” The OST and the Rescue Agreement of 1968 provide that astronauts are envoys of humankind and that all states shall provide assistance to them in the event of distress or emergency. If space tourists are deemed “astronauts,” then states that do not provide assistance to them could be deemed in violation of international law. Other types of international law may also provide useful guidance here. The international regime of the high seas, for instance, addresses equal treatment of commercial and state-sponsored travelers.8

Developing a culture of safety in commercial space exploration is also an issue of concern for some experts.9 In the second half of the 20th century, space exploration was undertaken by nation states, and companies typically worked closely with the states that licensed their missions. Today, private companies can access space without government collaboration and contracts, which could make it more challenging for governments to regulate commercial space activities.

Experts have suggested that ongoing public–private partnerships could help improve oversight dynamics.10 Such partnerships could help ensure that governmental oversight aligns with the commercial needs and growing capabilities of private enterprises.

Property rights and usage

The OST provides that the exploration and use of space must be carried out for the benefit of all countries, that space is the province of all humankind, and that space is not subject to national appropriation. This raises questions over how states and companies are permitted to use and explore space.

There are concerns, for example, of competing interests around space resource utilization and in-space scientific activities. For example, some scientists fear that lunar mining projects could interfere with long-term scientific goals.

To reduce the potential for unintentional interference with scientific research activities, some experts suggest states embed space resource best practices into their national licensing processes.11 Other experts suggest the establishment of an adaptive, incremental governing framework on space resources that could evolve in tandem with technology.12 Other frameworks, such as the UN Remote Sensing Principles or the International Telecommunications Union framework, could provide useful guidance in helping chart a path forward.13

Property rights and usage issues also apply in the case of satellite constellations, which occupy significant portions of orbital planes and can prevent other actors from using those same planes. In this case, space traffic management (STM) can help decrease the impact of satellite constellations. There are both technological and normative approaches to improving STM. For example, advances in object tracking could add more precision to STM.14 Authorities could even choose to create “rules of the road” for space traffic that specify which operator adjusts course to avoid a collision.15  Improved data-sharing practices and better communication among space operators could also help decrease the chance of conjunctions (near or actual collisions).16

The space sector is known for technical innovation and human progress. Now, the industry has an opportunity to establish a reputation for good governance by developing lunar behavioral norms, engaging in cross-sectorial consultation, and leveraging best-practice legal precedent from other domains. By building governance structures around five key aspects of space economy development—reducing unintentional interference, promoting safe operations, protecting property rights and usage, determining liability, and encouraging equitable data sharing—the industry can enable even greater leaps in innovation and unlock a wealth of social and economic benefits for humanity.

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