Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space

Milky-Way.Kiwi was lucky enough to attend the Committee on The Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) during our recent trip to Europe. It was a fascinating opportunity to see the inner workings of the massive bureaucratic organisation that is the United Nations, but also the chance to see where the deals are done and what issues are top of the agenda for many nations. The Committee was set up “in 1959 to govern the exploration and the use of space for the benefit of all humanity” (from the UN website). It has been running since then as a forum for nations to discuss pressing space issues and raise things that they are concerned about. The main issues that I picked up during the discussion were increasing concerns about space debris and the filling up of the geostationary orbit.

The committee has quite a full agenda which I won’t go into here other than to say they make slow progress it through it over the week they meet. The real benefit of the meeting though, seems to be in the side meetings, receptions and additional presentations that occur around the committee. The generous lunch breaks are packed full of extra things to attend and we made the most of catching up with what was happening. One of the highlights was the presentation by the United Arab Emirates and their ambitious plans for Mars. It really demonstrates that the domain of space is not just resting with the superpowers (old and new) anymore.

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (credit: Me)

The biggest issue that came up time and again was the growth in space debris and the risk that it poses to future use of space and the risk to people on the ground. The committee stopped short of condemning the recent testing of an anti-satellite missile by India but the subtext was certainly there. It is clear there needs to be some sort of binding regulation around the construction of satellites that includes their deliberate de-orbit before their systems degrade to the point that they are not in control. One of the much talked about occurrences during the meeting was the recent launch of the SpaceX Starlink satellites and that these sorts of mega constellations are going to have a huge impact on how nations use the Low Earth Orbit. There were some interesting presentations on different techniques for the removal of satellites but nothing seems more effective than if satellite producers planning the disposal of their hardware right from the design stage. I can’t help but think that unless there is some sort of regulation that hold nations accountable then the problem is only going to get worse.

The other issue which created a fair bit of discussion was the slowly filling up of the geostationary orbit. Currently there are around 402 satellites in geostationary orbit. Some estimates suggest that this orbit will be full at about 1800 satellites which means that we must start thinking of the geostationary orbit as a finite resource. This orbit is popular because at the 36,000km altitude satellites can match the rotation of the Earth and so appear stationary. This is useful for weather, communications and surveillance applications – hence why it’s filling up. The reason why the orbit has limits is because the satellites needs to have enough room to drift around a bit without the risk that they crash into each other. Additionally satellite operators don’t want communications interfering between satellites, though as communications technologies advance this is becoming less of an issue. The International Telecommunication Union regulates the use of the geostationary orbit and generally require satellite operators to move older dying spacecraft into a higher orbit so they do not interfere with operational satellites.

The presentation from India on the Chandrayaan 2 mission (Credit: Me)

So there are some big issues for the COPUOS to resolve in the next few years which will require a lot of international cooperation. The slowness of the United Nations bureaucracy is easy to condemn but it hides the valuable work that goes on behind the scenes and the simple fact that getting 95 nations together in room with a bunch of NGOs is generally a good thing as they can talk and highlight issues to each other – it’s better than no dialog at all.