As private satellites increase in number, what are the risks of the commercialization of space?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Around 11,000 satellites already orbit the Earth, together with tons of space junk.
  • Life on the planet increasingly depends on space technology.
  • As the risk of collisions grows, is it time to think again about how we use – and govern – space?
  • Read the Global Risks Report here.

Space is getting more crowded and more commercialized. This is leading to a growing risk of collisions between satellites and space junk, and means that new regulations on the use of space are urgently needed.

Those are some of the conclusions of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022, which warns that if satellites fail, whether due to natural or human events, the consequences for life on Earth could be profound.

Global navigation and communication systems are heavily dependent on space technology, the report says, but so too are energy and water supplies, financial infrastructure, broadband internet and television and radio services.

Yet if a single piece of space junk strikes just one satellite, it could cause a cloud of debris that takes out many more and results in a “cascading effect” on critical services. That’s according to one theory, called the Kessler Effect.

The risks inherent in outer space becoming ever more congested.
The risks inherent in outer space becoming ever more congested. Image: World Economic Forum

“With such possibilities becoming likelier in a congested space, the lack of updated international rules around space activity increases the risk of potential clashes,” the report says.

Crowded space

Around 11,000 satellites have been launched since Sputnik 1 became the first human-made object to orbit the Earth in 1957, but almost seven times that number are planned to join them over the coming decades, the report notes.

There are also an estimated half a million pieces of debris in orbit, presenting a growing threat to our use of space. A piece of space junk even hit the International Space Station (ISS) in May 2021, making a hole in a robotic arm.

Only 3% of those surveyed for the Global Risks Report say that mitigation measures to prevent conflict in space are effective, while 59% think they are still at an early stage and 17% believe they have not even started.

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WEF’s Global Risks Report highlighted the top 10 risks by severity. Image: WEF Global Risks Report 2022

Space regulation falling behind

Since 1967, 110 countries have ratified the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space. But the report points out that space regulation has not kept pace with evolving technologies and new military threats.

It says there is a “pressing need” for an international body to govern the launching and servicing of satellites, to establish space traffic control and provide common enforcement principles to back them up.

The 1972 Space Liability Convention covers only spacecraft, but the report says that clarity is needed on how to deal with the likes of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic ships, which launch from a plane and use wings to help them land.

Virgin Galactic is just one example of a growing trend towards private investment in space technology. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets are already delivering satellites and supplies for government agencies such as NASA, including Christmas gifts to the ISS crew.

Early space exploration was the exclusive province of governments. But the Global Risk Report says some governments “are encouraging private space activity to further national ‘territorial’ claims, or to foster the development of high-value jobs … as well as enhancing their military or defence-oriented presence”.

In the United States, SpaceX’s Starship rocket has been selected to carry NASA astronauts to the moon as part of the Artemis programme, which also aims to send humans to Mars. Starship will be the first US-manned lunar mission since Apollo 17 landed in December 1972.

Increased private investment in space is driving down the cost of launching satellites.
Increased private investment in space is driving down the cost of launching satellites. Image: World Economic Forum

Increased private investment in space is also driving down the cost of launching satellites into orbit, says the report. Lower costs mean more organizations can launch smaller satellites, opening up the prospect of innovations such as space-based energy generation and even tourism.

Space arms race

Among the less welcome aspects of new space technologies is the development of hypersonic weapons – missiles that are so fast and agile they can evade conventional defences. The report says a “hypersonic arms race” is already underway.

There are an estimated half a million pieces of debris in orbit.
There are an estimated half a million pieces of debris in orbit. Image: World Economic Forum

“Gaps in space governance render arms races even more likely,” says the report. “New rules are unlikely in the near future, as there is little agreement over key issues such as boundaries, control over space objects, or dual-use systems. Any further decline in cooperation on space governance will only exacerbate risks,” it adds.

Warning that critical space technology is vulnerable to hazards other than space junk, the report calls for space powers to work together to avoid conflict and agree standards and norms for space operations.

“Critically, and like other realms where technology is developing at a faster pace than its regulation, bringing private-sector actors into the agreement processes will help ensure that such pacts reflect both commercial and technical realities,” the report concludes.

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