What will it take for the world to agree on a policy for peace, expansion in space?

If experts are to go by, nothing short of a global space crisis will move attention towards Space policy.

What happens if tomorrow, China blows up an American satellite in space? Or a private company lands on an asteroid and starts mining it? A layperson would likely be confounded by these questions, and rightly so. But the trouble is this: ask an expert on space policy the same question, and the answer will likely be that it’s really anyone guess.

It’s been nearly 62 years since the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite launched into orbit. Space technology has grown exponentially ever since. And for all the scientific progress made in the arena of space technology, space policy has remained largely stagnant. There are few areas of global policy discourse today that are as contentious as that on outer space. The situation begs the question: are we waiting for a global crisis to happen before we even decide on a space policy?

“Some of us have been shouting the same question from rooftops for years,” says Rajeshwari Pillai-Rajagopalan, one of India’s leading experts on space policy and the convenor of the recently-concluded ORF Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue. Raji, who has represented India at the UN Group of Governmental Expert (GGE) and at the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) forums, has argued the need for a global policy framework at the world stage for some time now. “I’ve talked with people at various forums within the UN, the EU, ASEAN, you name it. They all agree on the need for a space policy – but they just can’t come to a consensus on it.”

So what’s causing the policy impasse?

Just like in many other global policy issues, two major camps – the US and China – dominate the discourse, says Raji. But in recent years this dynamic has slowly been changing – “What’s really changed now is that Asia has come up as a strong counterbalance where there’s not only the meteoric rise of China, but also the emergence of India, the re-emergence of Russia to some extent, and the return of a ‘stable’ Japan,” she says.

While some experts like Raji argue that the underlying problem is largely political, others such as Daniel Parros, Space Security Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), say that there are some real challenges associated with the proliferation and distribution of space capabilities. “The challenges associated with the space industry are very unique," Parros argues. For example, last year a Russian on-orbit service vehicle performed a simple control-check maneuver in space and the US accused Russia of spying. Russia obviously denied it, but the problem is what happens then? How do you independently verify these claims when the technology to do so is only present with government space agencies, both of whom have vested interests?”

What will it take for the world to agree on a policy for peace, expansion in space?

The panel of experts at ORF that spoke about Women in Space. Image: Ploughshares/Twitter

This dynamic is slowly changing with the increasing role being played by the private space industry, but there’s still a long way to go, according to Parros. “The problem is keeping track of who’s doing what in space at all times, and that is really difficult. There are a few people doing really path-breaking in this arena with technologies like biometric systems for satellites, but a lot of work still remains before these technologies can actualise,” he argues.

Apart from the emergence of the private space industry, another key element precipitating conflict in outer space, says Parros, is the increasing ‘weaponization’ of space. “We must take care to differentiate weaponization of space from the militarization of space. Outer space has been militarized from the very start of the space race. But it is only now that it is increasingly being weaponized,” he says.

India’s ASAT demonstration – in context

While the anti-satellite test demonstration by India in March this year is symptomatic of weaponization, many experts argue that the general discourse is also moving away from peaceful uses of space technology. Speaking at the ORF dialogue, the Chairman of ORF, Sunjoy Joshi said, “The discussion has actually been regressing for years. Military and security concerns have actually taken primacy over other concerns in recent years.”

Reacting to the ASAT, Parros adds, “A kinetic kill demonstration such as ASAT is a statement more than anything. The last such test was by China in 2007, but that doesn’t mean the capability doesn’t exist outside these countries. Russia has probably had this capability for a long time but never really established it. If they (Russia) do conduct an ASAT in the near future, it might be because of India’s ASAT.”

If there’s a consensus among experts about one thing, it is that the world has now moved ahead with much more scarier technologies such as electronic and cyber warfare using space-based capabilities and this is what makes the need for a global space policy so immediate.

What a Space Crisis Could Mean

The term 'space crisis' sounds quite foreboding. But what's scarier is the absence of a framework to deal with one, says Raji. "We see a lot of countries continuously ‘testing the waters’ with matters of space security, whether it is China, US, or even India (with its ASAT). The problem is that we still can’t clearly define what an armed attack in space really is or what actions can be construed as one. Does it need to cause loss of life or property? What about electronic or cyber attacks? And ultimately, what actions can legitimise a counter-attack These are some of the burning questions that need to be defined and answered before we can advance in space,” she says. The problem, however, is that the answers are unlikely to be arrived at anytime soon.

“At this point, only a crisis can set things back in motion.”

So how bad would it be? “Things could get really ugly,” says Daniel Parros. “For example, if the US were to lose GPS capability for even a minute, that is a catastrophe of unparalleled scale! But on the other hand, a little bit of tension can actually be fruitful.”

“The bottom line”, says Daniel, “is that we don’t need countries to be at peace with each other. What we need now is the right amount of tension, which can spur countries to take action and also act as checks and balances.”

The author is a science writer and student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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