We continue to share insights from Space Tech Expo Europe 2021 in Bremen where we visited the Industry and Smallsats conferences, earlier this autumn. Space sustainability was one of the key themes and besides covering sustainable space technologies, one of the expert panels was dedicated to regulatory aspects of this issue.
There are advantages to having a solid regulatory framework within which the space sector functions. Such a framework would ensure that, in particular, commercial operations are sustainable and contribute not just to the advantage of the sector but also to the welfare of society. This demands examining the issue from several perspectives: industrial, national, and international.
Let’s look at some of the building blocks needed for a unified space governance for a safer, more sustainable industry:
Most current methods of space operations do not include any sustainability measures and the main reason for this is that regulation is behind. The ideal approach is to modify business models to be governed by adaptive space governance. At the same time, the industry should never be separated from the state or academia. Only a multi-stakeholder approach will allow all parties to collaborate to develop a complex set of rules.
The government should offer the finest possible framework for the industry. It is a significant problem for emerging countries as well as innovative initiatives. As a result, they must collaborate with more experienced partners in order to gain knowledge and best practices from them to establish strategy and rules in a more effective manner.
When states engage in talks on space law and policy at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS), they consider their national interests. For many, space brings a lot of economic revenue. As a result, it raises the dilemma of how to defend national interests while also promoting sustainability for the benefit of society as a whole. Experts observed that such an approach is in any case consistent with the interests of the space sector since more investments are directed toward more sustainable projects.
We now have a great international tool thanks to UN COPUS. Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities make advice to governments as well as the sector. For example, expanding cooperation requirements from the Outer Space Treaty, they request that communication between operators be improved to boost transparency in space activities. Guidelines were agreed by consensus, and so they may give a wonderful foundation for what is expected of nations and commercial entities in terms of sustainability in outer space.
Approach to governance
Now, new developments are posing new problems to policymakers. First, having a big number of stakeholders makes it more difficult to develop a coherent strategy and merge current legislation into a system. Second, technical progress is quite rapid. The key to future governance will be to stay adaptable and receptive to new advances. We do not need to enact additional binding treaties in this circumstance – as the space business is so dynamic, it should not be overly regulated. As a result, the responsibility of the state will be to cover risks and share them with companies by regulating debris monitoring issues and supporting sustainable mission licensing.
On an international level, it is critical to have a non-burdening yet cohesive strategy based on UN instruments, including cost and benefit assessments while working governance for the sustainable space industry.