Authored By: Trishla Dubey
The regulatory framework must be reformed to preserve the environment of outer space.
Putting the debate into context
On March 27, 2019, India successfully conducted the test of its indigenously built Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) Missile under Mission Shakti, proving to the world its capability of becoming a space superpower. This bold and proud step has attracted criticisms from all around the world including UNSC members like China and USA along with Pakistan’s frenzy of fear. The arguments are two-fold in this regard. These criticisms firstly highlight the fear of space militarization and secondly the creation of space debris. It is to be noted here that for both of these, the ‘tensed nations’ are the biggest culprits. While India has made it significantly clear that it has no intentions for the former, the space debris is a serious concern.
The A-SAT technology was demonstrated for the first time in 1959 by the United States to counter the erstwhile USSR. ASAT’s are aimed at destroying or disabling space assets, whether military or civilian, offensive or defensive, as per a document of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). ASAT’s are generally of two kinds: Kinetic (which requires a physical strike on the target to destroy it, for instance, ballistic missiles) and Non-Kinetic (which uses nonphysical means to either disable or destroy any space asset, for instance, blinding lasers with an intention to render the space asset futile).
At present, there are only a handful of international legal instruments like Outer Space Treaty, Liability Convention, Moon Agreement, Registration Convention, and Rescue Agreement, which govern the realm of space law. The legal framework is quite scarce and developing, nations mostly rely on instruments like UN resolutions, national legislation, and space policies of the respective country for undertaking space activities. A majority of nations are yet to frame a law on the subject, for instance, India has recently introduced its Space Activities Bill in the Parliament.
With the massive increase in space-related explorations around the world, we have entered an era of space revolution. Now the race of supremacy is not confined to land, air or water but is rapidly expanding to the fourth dimension, which is still largely unexplored. In the wake of the space expeditions undertaken by the developed and a handful of developing countries, it is definitely the right time to evaluate the irreparable consequences these explorations may cause to the space environment.
Lack of appropriate legal framework has resulted into increasing space probes in recent times, giving rise to massive accumulation of space debris which has evolved as a major issue because of want of appropriate technology to deal with it. There are already 2300 satellites orbiting the earth, of which only 1100 are in a current working state. The remaining form part of space junk which pollutes the space environment and may be termed a serious threat to other space objects like the ISS (International Space Station). These can crash on earth or collide with other satellites or the space station above. It is by far as a drug without an antidote.
In the absence of any strict monitoring and binding international norms, the powerful nations exercise their leverage in space exploration activities which puts other nations at a disadvantage. In recent times, it is evident that the so-called ‘elite club’ wants a monopoly over space which the international instruments claim to be the common heritage of mankind. This inhibits the right to development of other nations. The monopolistic behavior is identical to the nuclear energy and arms regime which is controlled by a few nations which have developed such capability before other nations and now these nations are in a position to restrain others from making a similar attempt which is restricting the overall growth of the other nations.
The outer space can be compared with high seas, Arctic and Antarctica, which is though a part of common heritage but is largely controlled by technologically advanced nations. Any space-related pollution will create a situation similar to climate change, for which the developed nations are largely responsible but the adverse impacts of the same have to be borne by all.
Towards a solution
In 2018, the United Nation Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) proposed three A-SAT test guidelines. Under the ‘No Debris’ guideline which states that any test should not create space debris. If at all space debris creation is necessary to the test, then it must be in the lower orbits to avoid long-life. It also suggested that actors testing ASAT should notify others of their activities regardless of transparency on the motive behind it which would avoid any misinterpretation or misperceptions by others. However, there is no consensus among the space-faring countries on UNIDIR guidelines. The need of the hour is to develop comprehensive international instruments on the subject and enumerate Standard Operating Guidelines on the space-related adventures which give equal opportunity to all nations, without threatening the security and sovereignty of other nations. The technology for space cleanup must be developed as soon as possible and until then, the number of objects released into space must be limited. An independent international space monitoring body must be set up to ensure compliance and any non-compliance must be dealt with seriously, imposing heavy financial liabilities on the violator. Only through these measures, we can ensure that the common heritage of mankind does not become the common garbage for mankind.
While the race for development is always on, it would be interesting to see, how long it continues.
Ms. Trishla Dubey is Assistant Professor of Law at National Law University, Nagpur