Article

Framework for Space Sustainability Is Needed as We Enter a New Space Age

Engaging in space diplomacy is essential to prevent conflicts, resolve disputes and promote peaceful coexistence in outer space.

Far beyond the current artificial intelligence (AI) boom, there has long been an inextricable link between intelligent technology and space. For decades, intelligent technology has been a driving force behind various space missions, spacecraft and exploration initiatives. Early space missions relied on sophisticated computing technologies that, for their time, represented the cutting edge of intelligent systems.

Over the years, advances in robotics, machine learning and AI have played pivotal roles in enhancing the capabilities of space probes, rovers and satellites. With space technology, we can better study our world and address the problem of climate change. As we know too well, the impacts of climate change are vast and include an increase in disasters and disease, a reduction in agricultural output and economic devastation.

Space technology enables us to predict disasters and weather patterns more accurately and bolsters our efforts to navigate and reverse some of the escalating consequences of climate change. In various applications within space exploration, AI plays a pivotal role.

For example, NASA’s autonomous rovers on Mars showcase AI’s prowess in decision-making, obstacle avoidance and guiding us to significant discoveries. Neural language processing enables the creation of intelligent assistants to aid astronauts, while robots equipped with AI help with physical tasks during space missions.

AI-powered navigation systems facilitate extraterrestrial exploration independently of traditional satellite support. In satellite-related endeavours, AI algorithms efficiently process extensive datasets, contributing to image analysis, remote monitoring and the prediction of satellite performance.

Machine learning techniques help in locating space debris, thereby reducing collision risks and enhancing overall space flight safety. Additionally, AI automation optimizes data collection, evaluation and distribution from scientific missions, ultimately improving the efficiency of space exploration endeavours. 

In fact, space is a centre of economic activity. Space technology’s impact on the economy is broad and extends across various sectors, providing technological innovation, creating jobs, enhancing global connectivity and fostering economic growth.

The space industry’s continuous evolution and integration into everyday life contribute to its growing significance in the global economy. It is estimated by the industry that the global space market increased by 8% to US$546 billion in 2022, with growth projections upward of US$737 billion by 2030. Some other notable contenders in this boom include China, Japan and India.

For instance, Japan has made great strides in space development in the past half a century, driven by government initiatives. It has been successful in the advancement of launch vehicles and the field of space exploration, such as with the Hayabusa project. Globally, we are on the cusp of even more significant developments, spurring the idea that the space race has been reignited.

In a policy brief in May 2023, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that “over the past decade we have witnessed a fundamental change in the actors, ambitions and opportunities in outer space, and a new era of space exploration has come rapidly upon the multilateral system. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that existing international space law is fully implemented, and that effective governance is in place to propel innovation and mitigate risks.”

The current and historical emphasis on competitiveness may result in decreased regulation exploited by influential business entities, prioritizing high technologies at the expense of urgent social issues.

In 2023, Inga Ulnicane, who has worked extensively on AI governance research, warned against linking the space-race narrative with AI development. She argues that this perspective emphasizes immediate economic gains, perpetuating the notion of a zero-sum game while overlooking the potential for mutually advantageous results.

Thus, the current and historical emphasis on competitiveness may result in decreased regulation exploited by influential business entities, prioritizing high technologies at the expense of urgent social issues. Ulnicane argues for global cooperation and integrating Sustainable Development Goals. A pertinent question is how we balance international collaboration and innovation, which some argue is only possible through enabling competitive advances in AI technology within the industry.

There are some considerations. What is required is a combination of diplomatic efforts, cooperative agreements and shared resources. The UN Secretary-General observed that preserving outer space, a shared domain that benefits humanity, necessitates responsive governance involving multiple stakeholders and adaptability. He further argued that the increasing risks arising from the growing congestion in the low-Earth orbit and the increasing competition in space must be dealt with collectively, involving all the parties involved in space exploration and utilisation. However, it is essential to ensure that member states remain central and continue to lead intergovernmental processes. 

So, what is to be done? The Secretary-General offers two options. Option one proposes creating a comprehensive framework for space sustainability by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in collaboration with relevant UN entities to promote transparency, build confidence and enhance the interoperability of space operations. Additionally, this option suggests incorporating a platform to involve a broader range of operational stakeholders.

Option two suggests an alternative approach where this committee considers developing new governance frameworks for various aspects of space sustainability. These frameworks, presented as distinct yet mutually reinforcing instruments, would be formulated in cooperation with relevant UN bodies.

Similar to option one, this second option proposes including a platform to engage a broader range of operational stakeholders in developing and implementing these frameworks. Beyond these options, I would argue that there are other considerations.

One key strategy is the establishment and adherence to international space cooperation agreements, such as the Outer Space Treaty and the Artemis Accords, which emphasize the peaceful and responsible use of outer space, discouraging its militarization. To accelerate technological advances and scientific discoveries, it is crucial to encourage collaborative research projects and joint missions that involve multiple countries.

Mirroring other arguments for inclusive and equitable AI systems, it is necessary to facilitate space technology transfer from developed nations to developing nations to promote inclusivity and narrow the technological gap.

This approach, supported by shared funding and resources, can facilitate the exchange of scientific knowledge and expertise, enhancing the capabilities of space programmes globally. Strengthening partnerships between national space agencies and international space organizations is another critical aspect of fostering global cooperation. Regular forums for space agencies to exchange information, discuss challenges and coordinate efforts on global space-related issues can help create a more cohesive and collaborative international space community.

Mirroring other arguments for inclusive and equitable AI systems, it is necessary to facilitate space technology transfer from developed nations to developing nations to promote inclusivity and narrow the technological gap.

Moreover, capacity-building programmes can play a significant role in helping emerging nations in this sphere to develop their space capabilities through training, knowledge transfer and infrastructure development. Beyond technological collaboration, addressing sustainability in outer space is vital for this intersection of space and technology.

Collaborative efforts on space debris mitigation, adherence to international guidelines for responsible space exploration and promoting sustainable practices can contribute to the long-term viability of outer space activities. Engaging in space diplomacy is essential to prevent conflicts, resolve disputes and promote peaceful coexistence in outer space.

By establishing frameworks for the international sharing of space-related data, nations will benefit from each other’s observations and research, fostering a global approach to space science and exploration. There are compelling arguments to be made that we are entering a new era of the space age — and we must respond accordingly.

As TS Eliot wrote in his poem Little Gidding in 1942: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Eliot’s words serve as a profound reminder that as we venture into the next phase of the space age, we must not only rediscover our starting point but also view it with a newfound understanding and a dedication to sustainability.

This article was first published by Daily Maverick. Read the original article on the Daily Maverick website.

Suggested citation: Marwala Tshilidzi. "Framework for Space Sustainability Is Needed as We Enter a New Space Age," United Nations University, UNU Centre, 2024-01-22, https://unu.edu/article/framework-space-sustainability-needed-we-enter-new-space-age.

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