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From Spy Satellites to Space Junk: What needs to be considered when updating space laws

The US has signed a $1.8 billion contract with SpaceX based on which the company will create a network of spy satellites for the US surveillance agency.

According to the satellite tracking website Orbit Now, there are 9586 objects in space as of writing this story. While the number of objects in space is growing, all the international regulations controlling activities in space are extremely dated, with activities in space being governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

As India and other countries consider updating their domestic space laws, and international space regulations, here are some of the key considerations that need to be taken into account—

Spying using satellites:

These are military satellites used to carry out photographic surveillance, gather electronic intelligence, detect nuclear explosions, or provide early warning of strategic missile launches and also for picking up communication traffic from cell towers. Given their ability to tap communication, spy satellites negatively affect people’s privacy across the world. What is especially concerning about these spy satellites is the veil of secrecy surrounding them. Given that we are completely unaware of the extent of data collection they carry out and the safeguards in place to prevent the potential misuse of these spy satellites and the data they collect.

According to the World Population Review, the US ranks first with 239 military satellites followed by China at 140 and Russia at 105. It is unclear how many of these are spy satellites. Notably, the US has signed a $1.8 billion contract with SpaceX, based on which the company will create a network of spy satellites for the US surveillance agency. India also plans to launch 50 satellites for intelligence gathering in 2024, as per a report by the Times of India.

Entry of private companies into the space race:

In the recent past, many private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have been taking steps to enter the space race. Of these, SpaceX and Blue Origin have close ties with satellite communication projects, Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. [Note: Blue Origin and Amazon are both owned by Jeff Bezos]

With their entry, the biggest question that emerges is: who do their loyalties lie towards? This question becomes pertinent considering SpaceX’s decision-making in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine first began, SpaceX extended Ukraine access to free internet services via Starlink. As per a letter letter by US senators, it is alleged that Elon Musk (the owner of SpaceX) restricted the use of Starlink satellite communications (SATCOM) terminals used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) in southern Ukraine in 2022 after conversations with Russian officials. Restricting Starlink use had the effect of subverting an intended Ukrainian attack on Russian military targets operating in and around the occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

Such decisions by private companies providing satellite services raise concern about the need for a regulatory framework that balances national security concerns, humanitarian considerations, and the autonomy of private enterprises.

Space junk:

Space junk includes all the man-made objects and remnants that have been abandoned in the space environment. It consists of non-functional satellites that have been decommissioned or have ceased operations upon completing their intended purpose in orbit. Additionally, space junk encompasses smaller fragments and particles, such as pieces of debris or flakes of paint that have detached from spacecraft or rockets during launch or operations in space.

As per a report by CNN, it is estimated that there are 100 million pieces of manmade space debris in the Earth’s orbit. This can lead to a number of problems:

  • Objects in low Earth orbit can travel at a speed of over 37,000 km per hour. If they hit space missions like the International Space Station (ISS), it could crack its windows.
  • It could also collide with satellites or space shuttles in space, impacting the functions they perform on Earth (such as internet connectivity, weather forecasting, etc.).
  • Debris could be attracted by Earth’s gravitational pull and get sucked back into the atmosphere. While smaller space junk might burn off before reaching Earth’s surface, larger pieces could cause pollution and expose those coming in contact with them to toxic chemicals.

What makes space debris an even bigger problem is a phenomenon called the ‘‘Kessler Syndrome,’ wherein the amount of junk in orbit around Earth creates more and more space debris. The phenomenon has been named after former NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who hypothesizes a vicious cycle: As the quantity of satellites orbiting Earth increases, the likelihood of collisions between these satellites also rises. Such collisions would generate additional fragments that would continue orbiting, and each of these orbital debris fragments would further increase the probability of more collisions occurring. This could potentially lead to the formation of a dense belt of debris around Earth.

Anti-satellite weapons:

These are weapons designed to destroy satellites that are in orbit around the Earth. So far, the US, Russia, India and China have tested anti-satellite weapons capable of destroying satellites that provide services like the Global Positioning System (GPS), communication, and weather forecasting. While so far these weapons have only been tested, if they are implemented, they could be used to disable or destroy critical satellite systems, disrupting essential services for the country whose satellites are targeted. Furthermore, even at the testing stage, breaking apart satellites generates space debris which can, in turn, lead to the problems explained above.

In 2022, five countries (the US, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Germany) committed to no longer testing destructive direct-ascent, kinetic-energy anti-satellite weapons. In 2023, Australia and the 27 member countries of the European Union also committed to the same. It is important to note here that direct-ascent kinetic energy anti-satellite weapons are a sub-category of anti-satellite weapons that directly destroy targeted satellites by brute force. As such, the commitment should not be understood as a complete ban on anti-satellite weapon testing. It will only accomplish a reduction in space debris posed by such tests, and the geopolitical concerns posed by such continue to remain.

Light pollution in space:

Another major problem that needs to be tackled in space exploration is that of light pollution caused by satellites in low Earth orbit. Astronomers have pointed out that when a satellite passes a telescope’s detector, it can leave a bright streak of light (caused by the satellite reflecting light from the sun) across the image captured by the detector. This makes it difficult or impossible to recover the original information that the telescope was trying to capture in those areas of the image.

Furthermore, with the night sky getting brighter due to these satellites, telescopes need longer exposure time to capture distant celestial objects. This can become a problem for projects that have a shorter observation time. Some astronomical events happen at very specific times, and with telescopes requiring longer time to document objects, these events might end up being missed. As more and more satellites enter space, it might become harder to detect less bright celestial objects.”

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