How should we sustainably govern low Earth orbit?

There is much buzz in the news nowadays about sustainability in low Earth orbit (LEO). With the rise of megaconstellations, fears of space debris and its consequences are growing. More generally, engagement with space is becoming more active – university students can send cubesats to space with limited funding, and businesspeople are raising money for mining space resources. Particularly in LEO, all this activity generates concerns about sustainability. But how do we address sustainability in LEO? To learn more, we spoke to Lauren Napier, a doctoral candidate in space law and policy at Northumbria University. She is also a board member and program director at the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization.

What does sustainable governance mean in the context of low Earth orbit?

Before we speak of sustainable governance of LEO, let us first unpack what each term means. “Sustainable” and “sustainability” are being kicked around a lot lately as key buzzwords in many high-level discussions. To talk about something being sustainable means to rethink the status quo and to be aware that change for the better is needed. It means enjoying the benefits that a resource has to offer on an equitable basis, so as to satisfy the needs of the present whilst also keeping in mind the needs of the future.

I use the term governance when talking about LEO not just to mean purely legal mechanisms to manage the orbital environment. It is a broader discussion topic than that. The foundation for discussion of this topic is the Outer Space Treaty (OST), as well as four subsequent space treaties. The forum for discussion of this topic is the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS). Regarding the term LEO, it is about 100 to 2,000 kilometers above Earth, though there is no legal definition.

Putting this all together, what does sustainable governance of LEO mean? It means devising and implementing frameworks that ensure future generations can benefit from LEO, but in a way that still aligns with the overarching regime founded by the five outer space treaties.

I take a holistic approach to all aspects of the orbital environment – LEO is not just about satellites. There are many aspects: space debris, radio frequency spectrum use, space situational awareness, space traffic management, megaconstellations, space weather, near-Earth objects, on-orbit servicing, and the quantity and diversity of LEO operators. All these aspects are interconnected. Experts address each one individually, but from a governance point of view, all of them must be looked at collectively. My approach, therefore, is to seek broad consensus about how to manage LEO, such that humans will be able to use it for many generations to come.

What can be done to improve how sustainably low Earth orbit is governed?

The space community is already working to make human activity in space more sustainable and responsible. Recently UN COPUOS approved 21 guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities; these are referred to as the LTS Guidelines. Whilst the LTS guidelines are not binding upon the signatory states, they offer all participants in space activities the chance to consider the long-term sustainability of their space activities under four overarching topics. These four topics are: policy and regulatory framework for space activities; safety of space operations; cooperation, international capacity-building, and awareness; and scientific and technical research and development.

While the LTS Guidelines are still new, another set of guidelines has already gained traction and is the best example of how guidelines can be applied to national space policy. This other, more mature set of guidelines started out as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. It has since become the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and it was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2007. The Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines are a good example of how guidelines can shape normative behavior amongst all space actors. Amongst national regulators, for instance, there has been widespread acceptance of the guidelines’ so-called 25-year rule with respect to post-mission disposal.

Additionally, UN COPUOS is working on the Space2030 Agenda, which is meant to align with Sustainable Development Goals and the LTS Guidelines. The Space2030 Agenda aims to include objectives that encourage member states and other space stakeholders to use space sustainably and peacefully and as a driver for sustainable development. It aims to promote international cooperation and encourage information exchange, especially with regards to best practices in order to enhance the safety and long-term sustainability of space activity.

There are other initiatives outside the UN that support space sustainability. One of particular note is from the Space Safety Coalition. Led by industry, the coalition has created Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations, which align with the LTS Guidelines. All of these initiatives together will not only support sustainability but will also encourage a safe and peaceful use of LEO. When implemented as national policies, these initiatives can improve the sustainability and safety of LEO for current and future activity.

What suggestions do you have for people who would like to combine their interests in space and sustainability?

First, people can help states adopt these sustainability measures as national policies. This includes embedding the sustainability measures into licensing processes. States should also reach out to their national private sectors in order to ensure that all space actors are embedding sustainable practices into their missions before launching into space.

A second important area people can contribute to is sharing experiences of implementation and lessons learned. This is especially critical for supporting developing space nations. Bilateral or multilateral collaboration are important ways to advance such capacity-building.

A third important way people can get involved is by helping to increase transparency and confidence-building measures in order to enhance space situational awareness and space traffic management. To avoid collision in low Earth orbit between space objects, we must track and communicate in a timely and accurate manner – this is something still being worked out. For these three issues, it is important to include all governmental and non-governmental voices.