ANALYSIS: Global challenges require domestic solutions for space sustainability

Washington DC
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Though many nations recognise the need to coordinate to solve collective problems in space, there is little consensus on how to approach them, say international space policy experts. A group of regional experts representing what are considered up-and-coming space powers - China, India and Mexico amongst them - all note a need for new political and technical coordination mechanisms, but find little support or agreement among regional governments.

"We all understand the problem, but collectively we can't find the most amicable solution," says Ajey Lele, expert on Indian military affairs and author of a forthcoming book about the Asian space race.

Common issues include space situational awareness (SSA), debris mitigation, earth observation and climate change impact research, and space weather forecasting.

Space situational awareness is often cited as a classic example of non-cooperation between nations. Despite the large number of satellite operators, their geographic diversity and the indiscriminate nature of space debris, there is no formal mechanism for detecting debris and advising the relevant operators. Several nations have built or are building their own SSA systems to detect space debris, and other nations are dependent on their goodwill to advise them of threats.

For developing regions, the experts note, regional cooperation is a necessity. Yet differing requirements for space-based applications and competing approaches to regional priorities hamper cooperative development. "We cannot analyse Latin America as a monolithic bloc," says Ciro Arevalo, a Colombian with long experience in the international space community. "We must consider different approaches to technology." Colombia, Mexico and Peru, for example, have suffered the greatest tolls from recent natural disasters. But the difference in disasters - earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts and floods - means that each government prefers tailored satellites and prefers not to expend scarce resources on those that mainly benefit other nations.

 

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Similar issues beset efforts in Africa, where many countries are incapable of running a space organisation. "The right approach is you first develop aviation," says Adigun Abiodun, a Nigerian scientist and founder of the African Space Foundation. "African countries were given diagrams of how to get to the moon" without having developed the necessary prerequisites. Abiodun advises that African nations pool their resources for common space resources, but the devil is always in the details: instruments that might be used to gauge deforestation of dense jungles may not be useful for detecting underground rivers in the Sahara Desert or measuring pollution from a large city.

Differing niches of expertise and concern prevent a worldwide approach. Mexico, says one expert, has some technical aspects of astronomy and satellite operation down pat, but only formed a space agency recently and lacks clear policies that would provide guidance. Without a firm national position, it may be little surprise that Mexico rarely bids for key roles or presents in the relevant organisations.

The current framework for international cooperation dates largely from the Cold War, and is best understood in that context. Recent developments - including the first credible plan to mine asteroids by Planetary Resources - has underscored just how outdated documents like the Outer Space Treaty and Moon Treaty are: the legality of mining asteroids is in question. Until space-faring and hopeful nations begin considering collective ramifications, regional and global solutions are largely out of reach to everyone. Until there is a globally-agreed solution to some of the collective problems, they will simply continue to multiply.