Shauna Sylvester is the Director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue and is the Executive Director of SFU’s ...
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Outer space has become vitally important for human security and development. Peaceful use of space and the military significance of outer space continue to increase. Some 60 countries currently utilize space for peaceful purposes, for communications, banking, monitoring environmental and climate change, disaster management, E-health, E-learning and surveillance and guidance systems for military purposes.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty establishes the basic framework for international space law. The treaty affirms space as free to all states for exploration and peaceful purposes and prohibits nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in orbit or on celestial bodies, or stationed in outer space in any other manner. However, it does not prohibit the launch through space of ballistic missiles that potentially have anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) capability or WMD payloads.
The security of space is now of serious concern. It is essential to prohibit the deployment of weapons in space that could destroy or endanger spacecraft and satellites in space, in the atmosphere and on earth. It is also essential to prohibit ground-based ASATs.
The three major issues that threaten the security of space for peaceful purposes are weaponization, space debris and the overcrowding of orbits.
The weaponization of space could lead to an arms race in space and the likelihood of space warfare. Since the earliest launches of satellites, space has been militarized with satellites used for command-and-control, early-warning, and guidance systems for weapons. The withdrawal of the United States from the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between Russia and the U.S. has allowed the U.S. to proceed with the development of the Ballistic Missile Defense System, a stepping stone to space weapons. Further, both China and the United States have tested ASATs.
Space debris, a consequence of global use of space, is another issue of concern. Billions of small objects circle the planet, endangering spacecraft and satellites and causing light pollution.
The overcrowding of orbits undermines the security of assets in space by creating the potential for collisions, thus causing tensions between states.
Outer space, protected as a common good, necessitates secure and sustainable access to and use of space and freedom from space-based threats for all states thus safe for peaceful human activity. Though a number of Resolutions affirming the importance and the urgency of preventing an arms race in space have been submitted to the UN, to date there is no legal regime preventing the weaponization of space, which remains the ultimate goal.
Photos courtesty of NASA