Key Governance Issues in Space

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Highlights
  • Solutions in the space domain must be technically smart and politically feasible.

  • There is little motivation to create binding international agreements to hold nations accountable for space debris or sustainability efforts. 

  • The insurance community is struggling to identify and quantify acceptable risk of satellites throughout their lifetime. 

Each year, new actors enter the space domain and bring new technologies, practices, and challenges. This paper explores how current international governance structures are keeping pace with the increased activity and diversity of space missions. It dives into three key governance areas for the space domain: sustainability and debris mitigation, rendezvous and proximity operations, and insurance requirements, and it evaluates national, multinational, and industry efforts to develop better norms or operating standards for space governance.

The best developed of these areas is space sustainability and debris mitigation efforts. An indiscriminate issue for the space domain, space debris is a growing problem with almost every launch. Many space experts acknowledge that without norms of behavior or debris removal missions, the space environment may be permanently damaged.

There are several international mechanisms, national policies, multinational activities, and industry efforts to curb the creation and proliferation of space debris. Several organizations, such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, and the Satellite Industry Association have published collaborative guidelines that suggest best practices for operating in the space domain in a sustainable manner. Several nations, especially Japan, have also taken significant steps to reduce debris on orbit.

Despite this progress, few international standards or norms exist. The few that are in place—such as the commonly practiced 25-year deorbit norm—are out of date with today’s technology and the proliferation of commercial satellites. Many in the space community are rightly concerned that without dedicated international action, possibly legal action, there will be a day where a debris-creating event is so significant that it sets off a chain reaction of more collisions on-orbit. This is often referred to as the Kessler syndrome.1 If such a day arises, the global space economy and services that are built into our everyday life (such as GPS, the global financial system, and daily weather forecasts) will no longer function as they do today.

The second issue area covered in this assessment is rendezvous and proximity operations—intentional maneuvers on orbit that put one satellite in a similar orbit or close to another satellite. Similar to space debris mitigation and the sustainability of the space environment, there are little to no agreed-upon definitions of what constitutes a safe interaction between satellites on orbit. Rendezvous and proximity operations are likely to become more commonplace as on orbit servicing (OOS) and active debris removal (ADR) technologies are tested and proven. Before this occurs, experts are working to develop standards or norms both for technical activities and for communicating movements while on orbit. However, unlike space debris mitigation and sustainability efforts, national and international discussions about rendezvous and proximity operations are either non-existent or at initial stages.

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Lastly, this report addresses national policies and perspectives of space insurance. There are several ways to insure a satellite for both launch and on orbit operations, but insurance options are currently expensive and can cost up to one-third the total cost of a satellite, depending on the risk. There are also minimal national policies requiring any sort of insurance—especially once the satellite is out of the Earth’s atmosphere and therefore in little to no danger of harming civilians or property on Earth.

However, for space insurers, the crowded space domain is making insuring
satellites riskier and less profitable. This is already causing insurers to drop out of the space insurance market or reframe their insurance to not cover certain popular orbits. Until significant movement on cleaning and preserving the space domain occurs on an international level, space insurers may put such high premiums on coverage that companies cannot afford to buy insurance.

Through the following discussion and evaluation of national, multinational,
international, and industry perspectives on the aforementioned topics, several issues for further action emerge, including:

  • Creating international definitions for key space terminology;
  • Developing normative rules of the road for satellite behavior, especially for rendezvous and proximity operations; and
  • Assessing the stability and sustainability of satellite insurance and how the increasingly crowded space domain might affect satellite lifetime risk.

These options for future pursuit, and others, are elaborated upon in the following report.Aerospace