UN gets closer to establishing the law of the sea but for space

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Some of these are armed and dangerous—and unregulated.
Some of these are armed and dangerous—and unregulated.
Image: AP / NASA

Say you’re minding your own business in outer space, and all of a sudden, one of your multibillion-dollar satellites gets blown up. Or the signals it sends to Earth go haywire and fly-by-wire planes start crashing. Or, worse, those signals start telling you a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile is heading your way.

That’s how the next major war could start. One event in space—random or not—prompts another, and soon space-based weapons start firing away. This is something that has worried countries for a few decades now, even as they’ve quietly expanded a space arms race while an unsuspecting public focuses on more mundane potential conflicts.

Well, there’s some good news today on this front. The US State Department announced that a “landmark” consensus has been achieved by the United Nations’s Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures for Outer Space Activities. The group is comprised of 15 international experts nominated by UN member states that have some interest in space issues, from the usual suspects down to Kazakhstan, Romania, and Sri Lanka.

The report is based on two years of work, and hasn’t been released publicly yet. But the US promises that it will help bring more “strategic stability” to the space domain. Here’s why the solution might not get very far:

Its recommendations are voluntary and non-legally binding. And they focus on generic-sounding goals like enhancing the transparency of outer space activities and furthering international cooperation, consultations, and outreach. The report also calls for improved international coordination to enhance safety and predictability in the uses of outer space, but the devil in accomplishing something like is in the details.

This has been tried before. The UN and other international bodies have worked to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes since 1957, without much success. A group of governmental experts just like the current one was convened between 1991 and 1993, and it too produced a consensus report, weighing in at 144 pages. And though the US has since supported the current process, it abstained from the initial UN vote creating the group because of some actions by China and Russia.

Other efforts could complicate it. The international negotiating body responsible for preventing an arms race in outer space, the Conference on Disarmament, has been deadlocked for 15 years. Also, there is a Long-term Sustainability of Space Activities (LTSSA) Working Group in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), which focuses on related civilian space issues.

Space is a mess these days, and hard to police. In recent decades, space has become a giant junkyard, with all sorts of debris floating around. At the same time, dozens of countries, corporations and even your occasional eccentric billionaire have put objects in space. Who knows how many military-grade satellites are collecting and intercepting data, and how many possess defensive and offensive weapons.

Tiffany Chow of the Secure World Foundation says this makes space a very anarchic and dangerous place, where even the most random collision between a satellite and some space junk can be (mis)interpreted as an act of war. Chow has been following the UN group’s work closely and says the new consensus is a major step forward. “Space has become so critical for so many different purposes, and there are so many things that could happen in space,” Chow told Quartz. “There needed to be some rules of the road.”

The group is expected to submit its report to the United Nations General Assembly at its 68th session in September.