Space governance
How can the use of outer space be safe, sustainable and contribute to a flourishing future?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying physics, political science, economics, history and law, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines. 

 

Why is this a pressing problem?

Space launches are getting significantly cheaper and have become considerably more frequent over the last decade, from 129 in 2011 to 1807 in 2022. Disagreements over how space is used could increase the risk of conflict and erode international cooperation, undermining the coordination needed to solve other global problems. The increasing accessibility of space also raises questions about how to use space sustainably. Issues such the accumulation of debris in spacewhich threatens critical infrastructure such as satellites – and the development of anti-satellite weapons – which increase the likelihood of conflict – are examples of key issues that need to be addressed.

More speculatively, interstellar space colonisation may one day be possible, meaning that the vast majority of our descendants might not even live in this solar system. It may be too soon for policy changes made now to affect how space settlements are ultimately governed, and it’s also possible that AI will radically transform space settlement such that research done now isn’t relevant. However, given that space settlement could result in such a huge increase in the number of individuals that exist, further research could be very valuable.

There is a ‘Summit of the Future’ conference planned by the UN in 2023 which will bring together ‘governments and other leading space actors’ to ‘seek high-level political agreement on the peaceful, secure and sustainable use of outer space.’ The organisers may announce a call for proposals before the 2023 conference, so this may be a particularly impactful time to do research on this direction.

See the presentation below for an introduction to this area and an exploration of how international policies and agreements could be adapted in light of emerging uses of space.

 

 

How to tackle this

The questions below are drawn from this post from 80000 Hours and the research agenda of the Legal Priorities Project. See the agenda and post for more questions.

  • How plausible is a rapid settlement scenario like the one described here, in which space is settled by self-replicating probes that are launched from Earth in a relatively brief period of time (i.e. less than 50 years)? How much more or less likely is this scenario than a gradual process? (80000 Hours)
  • How much debris in low-Earth orbit is actually unsustainable (i.e. making it at least more than five times more expensive to access space for at least a century)? (80000 Hours)
  • Sharing the benefits of space-related technology and space resource activities: In the long-term, the possibility of acquiring resources from space might severely harm the economies of developing countries currently exporting those products. What should be the legal status of space resources, how should ownership rights be applied to extra-terrestrial resources, and how can the benefits of resources be shared? (Legal Priorities Project)
  • Environmental concerns and sustainable use of outer space: Any space activity constitutes an unavoidable risk of contaminating outer space with microorganisms, pollutants, and waste. Attempts to regulate that field, such as the 2019 Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (UNOOSA, 2020c), adopted by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), have advanced the debate but failed to bind nations and private actors to its recommendations. Which are the most effective legal mechanisms to ensure compliance with guidelines such as these? What regulations should be put into place to protect our planet (and other human-inhabited places) from extraterrestrial life or bioactive molecules in returned samples (NASA, 2020)? What can we learn and adapt from environmental law on Earth? How the law can contribute to balancing the right to explore outer space with the need to preserve it for future generations? (Legal Priorities Project)
  • Regulating the use of weapons in outer spaceCurrent international laws provide insufficient regulations to prevent an arms race in outer space. It could be useful to explore the viability of potential solutions, such as confidence-building and security-building measures, politically binding codes of conduct, and international prohibitions of weapons in space, as well as exploring how projects such as the Woomera Manual and MILAMOS project can best contribute to the long-term peace of space exploration. (Legal Priorities Project)
  • Sharing the benefits of space-related technology and space resource activities: In the long-term, the possibility of acquiring resources from space might severely harm the economies of developing countries currently exporting those products. What should be the legal status of space resources, how should ownership rights be applied to extra-terrestrial resources, and how can the benefits of resources be shared? (Legal Priorities Project)
  • If the process of settling space involves establishing new political entities like nations, what would be the best way to organise them? Should they be founded with constitutions, and if so, what should those constitutions include? (80000 Hours)
  • Should we be worried about a regulatory ‘race to the bottom,’ where countries compete to be the most favourable places to register private space companies and spacecraft? (Similar to the phenomenon of flags of convenience.) (80000 Hours)
  • What could the medium- and long-run economics of space look like? For instance, roughly when should we actually expect asteroid mining to become profitable? When could an off-Earth settlement become economically self-sustaining? (80000 Hours)
  • What economic mechanisms (e.g. auction or sharing) would be best for allocating space in low-Earth orbit when it becomes much more valuable and crowded? (Potentially relevant analogies include deep-sea mining and sharing arrangements for long-range electromagnetic waves used by satellites. (80000 Hours)

Who is already working on this?

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