The Outer Space Treaty-written in 1967 and signed by all the major world powers-is the closest we have to a constitution for space. For a document conceived before the moon landing, it is remarkably prospective: it declares that "celestial bodies" such as the moon and asteroids are beyond the reach of private development and requires countries to authorize and supervise continuously the activities of companies in space. It also says that space exploration must be carried out for the benefit of all peoples, and explicitly prohibits weapons of mbad destruction in space.
But even with that impressive scope of vision, the treaty authors could never have imagined where we are. "D be now There are currently 1,738 artificial satellites in orbit around our planet, as they become more affordable to build and launch, think of them as low-Earth orbiting drones, will undoubtedly proliferate and compete for valuable real estate with space stations, space tourists, space settlers, space miners, military space ships, and thousands of disused satellites and other immobile remains.
So far, no one has any idea how to deal with the scientific and engineering challenges – not to mention the politicians, legal and commercial – involved in the sustainable management of orbital debris and celestial mining objects. " There has to be a way forward with economic and scientific opportunities, but doing it in a way that mitigates the damage so as possible and hopefully without conflict, "says Aaron Boley, planetary physicist at the University of British Columbia.  That's why he and at least six other space scientists, policy experts and law experts from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and China are putting together the first Institute for Sustainable Space Development, essentially a focused approach in the tank space. The collaboration of experts from the sectors of science, politics and industry aims to find long-term solutions so that future generations of space explorers can continue where they end today. Based on the original principles of the Outer Space Treaty, applying those same issues of international governance to a new space age.
His organization will officially begin in November with a conference on space policy and a workshop, and plan to produce reports and white papers aimed at national and international audiences. They have already received initial funds from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and university funds for the conference.
With its focus on sustainable development, Boley and his team present themselves as a band of space ecologists. They want to treat space as a global common good, something that can be used but must also be protected, so that today's space activities do not compromise future ones. Terrestrial badogues include conflicts over forests or oceans, where people or even nations on their own might think they are having minimal impact, but their combined extractions of resources or pollution result in overexploited or threatened species. Sustainablely harvested species can survive indefinitely, while some practices, such as bottom trawling or proposed bottom seabed extraction, could cause more lasting damage.
Space activities that threaten to fill a low Earth orbit or pulverize a single asteroid could be badyzed in a similar way. "We really can not take space and think in terms of national borders," says Tanya Harrison, research director of the NewSpace Initiative at Arizona State University, which develops academic and business partnerships, "because whatever others do there. going up". to have an effect on all the others, as if your satellites are taking useful orbits or colliding with many other satellites. "
Harrison, Boley, and their colleagues believe that orbital debris is the most pressing and formidable problem facing space development today, and it will only get worse as we witness commercialization of low Earth orbit over the next decade or two. They say: If one day a collision breeds another and another, as in the Gravity movie of 2013, it could produce an impenetrable ring of debris that effectively prevents future space activities for everyone else, until the untested technologies for vacuuming , networks or harpoons are viable, temporary solutions are needed.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supervise the licenses that allow companies to launch a satellite in orbit. Satellite must have its own debris mitigation plan, which usually means retroce go to Earth within 25 years or rise to a "cemetery orbit" (where there is still a risk of collision, although a much smaller one).
At the same time, the Joint Space Operations Center of the Air Force tracks objects in orbit and catalogs them in a constantly growing database. But knowledge of their orbits degrades over time, and it's difficult for someone to remotely pilot a satellite to avoid an object whose position they do not know exactly, says Daniel Scheeres, an expert in aerospace engineering and satellite navigation at the University of Colorado. The constant monitoring of so many objects seems a daunting task, with swarms of small satellites now more affordable to send into space than their larger traditional counterparts.
For example, at any time, Planet Labs, based in San Francisco, a private image company on Earth, has about 200 satellites in orbit between the size of a shoe box and a washing machine. In general, they fly at altitudes of 500 kilometers, which lie below the densest regions and make it easier for satellite orbits to decay naturally in a few years, and then fall and burn at re-entry. "There is an acknowledgment that this benefits everyone, because if we start to see cascading collisions, debris that generates more debris, then everyone loses," says Mike Safyan, vice president of global launch and earth systems for the company.
But what? if not all act in the best interest of all? No one has taken responsibility for a large amount of unidentified and unmanageable debris that is already polluting the atmosphere, and it does not help that China ruined one of its satellites with a missile in 2007 or that two years later a US satellite collided with a larger satellite . , deceased Russian. "There is no general authority, there is no traffic police: the US can not tell the Russian Federation what to do, what we can do is gather around a table," says Diane Howard, expert on space policies and law. at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
Hundreds of government officials, industry representatives, scientists and retired astronaut Scott Kelly will meet on June 20 at the Vienna International Center to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, organized before the ink on the original Outer Space Treaty dried up. They will discuss "the future course of global space cooperation for the benefit of humanity" and will initiate a meeting of the Commission on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which includes a discussion on sustainable development. Of space.
COPUOS has already devised and approved 21 guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space. But their recommendations are hampered by what their members will allow, and the scientific and commercial communities are not well represented there, according to David Kendall, former committee chair and Boley team member.
Without clear international leadership and oversight and without an updated Outer Space Treaty on the horizon, a handful of individual countries have established their own space laws. The United States, which is home to many of the big players, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and Moon Express, to name a few, approved the first in 2015. It includes a possibly "liberal" interpretation. of the Outer Space Treaty, as Kendall said, allowing US-based companies to extract minerals or water ice from an asteroid, for example, as their property.
"The mission of this group of experts is timely." says Joanne Gabrynowicz, an expert in space law at the University of Mississippi, "because the regulatory regime is being drastically changed, and someone must look at the environmental and sustainability issues."
Unlike space debris, the perspectives and challenges of space tourism, lunar bases and asteroid mining seem far away, both in terms of technology and investment. But these nascent industries will probably take off sooner rather than later, and people like Boley and his collaboration want to be ready when that day comes.
"This is an issue that shares issues with climate change and global warming." Scheeres says. "At some point we have to realize that we are filling the space in which we live with our own detritus."