Dr Philippe Blondel and Professor Carole Mundell are respectively Senior Lecturer (and Deputy Director of the University’s Centre for Space, Atmosphere and Ocean Science) and Head of Department in the University of Bath’s Department of Physics.
Have Rocket, Will travel was a 1959 science fiction comedy featuring the Three Stooges. Since then, science has outpaced fiction, and despite setbacks, it is as exciting and full of opportunities as ever.
We were born well after this film, but (for one of us) still early enough to see the first steps on the Moon in 1969, to share the disappointment as the Apollo programme was cancelled, to check the latest updates of the Mars probes in 1976, and to witness the revolution brought about by space activities. Our spacecraft are now reaching between the stars; Voyager 1 (launched in 1977) is currently more than 21 billion km away. In the last few decades we have discovered our entire solar system, we have deployed robotic rovers to drive around Mars, and we have learned more about the surface of Venus than we know about the surface of Earth. Satellites in orbit around Earth give us telecommunications, highly accurate positioning, advance warning of incoming weather or volcanic eruptions, and they tell us how climate change is starting to affect us. The cost of sending a payload into space is dropping down dramatically, with mentions of £10,000 per kilogram in some cases. Humans are routinely sent into space, mostly to the International Space Station, and there have been talks of colonising Mars for the price of an average US house. Although we had to disagree with Elon Musk about some of the technical feasibility, these space ambitions are exciting. And they are far from the only ones.
Governments are increasingly spending more on and aiming to develop their space programmes. Last week, for example, the French and UK governments agreed to step up co-operation, in particular for Mars exploration and space applications. The government of Luxembourg announced in 2016 that it had its own plans to support space exploration and space utilisation. This was followed with direct help to some international companies, and the organisation of workshops linking scientists and technology developers – to develop space mining, for example. This interest has been kindled by the announcement of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act – Title IV in 2015 and initiatives like the Google Lunar X Prize, with its target date of 2018. Commercial space habitats are now used in space, and companies like Bigelow Aerospace are building on their successes to advocate public-private partnership activities. Access to space and exploitation of its resources is increasingly diverse, and increasingly active. Tsiolkovsky said humanity should not remain in its cradle for ever: we sent the robots, but what about the humans? Why is there no space travel now? True, some wealthy (and lucky) individuals can travel to space, but for staggering costs. For most of us, costs introduced by technological limitations still play an important role. But policy challenges are the main barrier to the democratisation of space travel.
Let us look at parallels closer to home, for example plane travel. Passengers are protected by the International Air Transport Authority (IATA), the 2003 International Montreal Convention on passenger rights, ATOL (Air Travel Organiser’s Licence) and similar schemes. Certification of aircraft and staff is ensured by companies and overseen by national and international aviation authorities. The safety of flight paths is ensured by the respective traffic control centres. So we can be reasonably sure that flights are as safe as possible, and that national and international policies are regularly reviewed. But what about policies in space?
The key document is the Outer Space Treaty, or, to give its full name, the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. Now signed by 106 countries, the Outer Space Treaty entered into force in 1967, with the following principles:
- The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
- Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
- Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
- States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
- The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
- Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
- States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
- States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
- States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
This means, for example, that private companies cannot sell “your own acre of the Moon”. It is however possible to “claim” a particular area in the name of a scientific experiment, and this is an issue discussed with a possible radio-telescope on the far side of the Moon, or at its southern pole. How wide should an exclusion zone be? Would it preclude access to mineral resources (eg. the water and helium known to exist in large quantities near the Moon’s south pole)? Other peaceful settlements might also claim large tracts not just of the surface of the Moon, but anywhere in outer space – and there is no mechanism at the moment to adjudicate between different claims. Along with property rights, and other ethical issues like the selection of space travellers (passengers, workers or settlers), this issue is explored in good depth in an on-going series of podcasts entitled “Making New Worlds: Exploring the Ethics of New Settlements in Space”.
The use of space resources is a large and looming issue, because technological developments are bringing the possibility closer and closer to reality; some countries are actively passing national legislation about the use of such resources (eg. the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act – Title IV). Asteroids like 16 Psyche, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, contain huge amounts of minerals (around 1019 kg of fairly pure nickel-iron, in this case). Brought back to Earth, these minerals would crash the markets. Remaining in space, they might assist in building large structures, in fuelling them, or (in the case of water) in helping space travellers, thus making them even more invaluable. One of the companies associated with the mining of space resources, Shackleton Energy, describes it as “like building an offshore oil rig or developing a new mine – only in space”.
And, like building an offshore rig or developing a new mine, this comes with many associated issues, in particular sustainability and “good neighbour” relations with neighbouring industrial operations or settlements. How does one dispose of the tailings? Who is responsible for the dust created in some operations? If it clogs another user’s machinery, who is liable and how is it enforced? This issue, and many others, were explored during the recent ASIME-2016 workshop, whose conclusions are available on ArXiv.
Even before we reach these stages, though, there is already a larger issue coming to the fore: space debris. Access to space is increasing, along with the number and type of stakeholders, from national or international space agencies to corporations, universities and other entities. This results in an increasing density of assets in the most desirable orbits, for example Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO). As orbits overlap or drift, this has resulted already in close to a dozen high-speed collisions between artificial satellites, most of which were only noticed afterwards, often because of performance loss or degradation. For example, the 2009 hypervelocity collision between satellites Kosmos-2251 and Iridium 33 occurred in Low Earth Orbit. Initial NASA estimates of 1,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm, and many smaller ones, were updated with later cataloguing of >2,000 debris large enough to be tracked from Earth. The intentional destruction by China of one of its own satellites in 2007 created >2,000 large debris (as catalogued at the time) and an estimated 150,000 debris particles, a large proportion of which were still in orbit 10 years later. Influential as it was, this was not an isolated case, as other countries had acted similarly in the past (for example the US in 1985). Building objects to go into space, and launching them, is already covered by very stringent regulations, with close to 150 standards already agreed by the International Standards Organisation and recommendations by the United Nations COPUOS “Expert Group B” on long-term sustainability of space activities. Even if all precautions are taken, though, a simple launch in space is not without challenges, creating debris ranging in size from spent propulsion stages to flakes of paint or bolts. Activities in space can also create additional debris, from lost tool boxes to smaller objects. Because of their high speeds, they might induce what is known as the Kessler Effect, effectively precluding access to space altogether and creating a new “Tragedy of the Commons”.
The lack of existing space policies (masterfully highlighted in a recent blog on The Conversation) is compounded by the challenges in implementing them in outer space, at distances from Earth which could be up to several light-hours (the time it would take for radio waves to travel to Earth, for example with an urgent message, and for an answer to travel back). The Outer Space Treaty precludes the use of “nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction”, but it does not say anything about wilful damage using other means, or even space piracy. The novel by Jack Vance (The Space Pirates) was written in 1953, but there are still no policies and no enforcement means 65 years later.
The lack of clear and agreed space policy and legislation is partly due to the time it takes to persuade the different players it is in their respective interests, partly due to the time lag between legislative efforts and technological developments, and partly due to the scale of the problem, with sums of billions potentially involved in preventing, regulating or redressing. This does not mean the discussion shouldn’t start now, and it must involve all players, industries and states.
In the meantime, we can already dream of a return to the Moon (a recent BBC podcast), and sing with Frank Sinatra: “Fly me to the moon / Let me play among the stars…”
This blog post is part of the Future Policy Challenges series, a new series of IPR Blogs with a focus on science, technology and innovation that highlights some of the crucial issues policymakers may face in the coming years. Subscribe to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to keep up to date with our activities, connect with us on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. You can also follow the hashtag #FuturePolicyChallenges for more on this series.