For a long time, WILPF has been engaged in preventing an arms race in outer space and sponsors the annual Keep Space for Peace Week every October.

WILPF believes that space should remain free from weapons and be used instead to facilitate humanitarian needs. Millions of individuals rely on space applications everyday and one mistake would have a greater affect on all.

Space is one of few global commons and our dependence grows. It is becoming increasingly important to address the issue of safety and security in space and the preservation of this unique environment so it can continue to benefit all for a long time to come.

New developments threatening space security and safety

Although the majority of space activities still focus on telecommunication many space faring countries have also expanded to other activities, in particular earth observation and technology satellites dedicated to monitor and prevent natural disasters and climate change.

In spite of this development there have also been some worrying trends and technology developments in recent years indicating that the weaponisation of space technology is no longer just science fiction. In January 2007, China tested an anti-satellite missile system by destroying one of its own satellites, which subsequently created large amounts of debris[1]. And in February 2008 the United States destroyed a damaged satellite before it deorbited using a modified interceptor designed to counter short to intermediate range ballistic missiles.

But weaponisation is not the only threat to space safety; accidental collisions create enormous amounts of debris that can have devastating effects.

Photo-1

Satelites and debris in low Earths orbit 1960-2010. Credit: NASA

Space debris is the collection of old objects in orbit, such as pieces left from payloads, old satellites, loose bolts etc. The increase of debris in space poses a serious threat since it increases the risk of, for example, collisions with operational space crafts and radio frequency interference. The average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object is close to 10 km/s, meaning a collision with even a small piece of debris will cause severe damage.[2] Today more than 21,000 pieces of debris are being tracked in the orbit around earth. However, since only pieces larger than 10 cm can be traced the number of actual debris is impossible to estimate.[3]

Photo 2

In a laboratory experiment conducted at the European Space Agency (ESA), a small aluminium sphere was fired at an 18-centimetre-thick aluminium block. Credit: ESA

There are numerous examples of accidental collisions, such as the first verified case of a collision between two space objects in 1996 when a piece of debris hit the French military satellite Cerise[4], leaving the satellite severely damaged. Or in February 2009 when a Russian inactive satellite and an American active satellite accidently collided, resulting in hundreds of fragments of debris that were spread around the former satellites orbits threatening other satellites.[5]

The increasing risk of debris collisions became obvious in May 2013 when Ecuador’s first satellite collided with a debris cloud left by an old Soviet satellite launch[6].

International initiatives to create a safer space

The increased use of space and the building amount of debris that has accompanied it have triggered several initiatives in order to create a safe space. In 1959 the UN General Assembly through resolution 1473 (XIV) created the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The resolution reviews the international cooperation in relation to the peaceful use of outer space. In June 2007, COPUOS adopted debris mitigation guidelines, including measures to be considered for mission planning, design, manufacture, and operational phases of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages.

Since 2002, Russia and China have pushed for negotiations on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) at the Conference on Disarmament and introduced a updated draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space in June this year. Most recently the European Union (EU) initiated a procedure to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC) in 2008.

However none of these efforts have yet managed to achieve the results needed and desired. This makes it more important than ever to protect space against weaponisation, militarisation and irresponsible behaviour. A conflict in space would lead to devastating direct consequences for our daily life on earth but also affect the overall long-term sustainability and peaceful use of space.

WILPF and Civil society

For a long time, only a few NGOs have been involved in space issues, mainly on an expert level. Governments need an active civil society that can make sure that the public follows any activities taking place and demand action. WILPF’s Reaching Critical Will has therefore increased its focus on space and has participated in the ICoC process, as one of the only civil society actors working to increase the civil society participation. Help us spread the information and keep yourself updated by looking at RCW’s publications and by subscribing to their Conference on Disarmament reports here.

 


[1] Secure World Foundation, Space Sustainability, a practical guide (2010), Secure World Foundation. p. 9

[2] http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/faqs.html#7

[3] http://www.swfound.org/our-focus/space-sustainability/

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4486049.stm

[5] Secure World Foundation, Space Sustainability, a practical guide (2010), Secure World Foundation, p. 7

[6] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-22635671