NASA photo / Drew Feustel

NASA photo / Drew Feustel The NanoRacks-Remove Debris Satellite, pictured deploying from the International Space Station on June 20, 2018, demonstrated technology for removing debris from space.

Nobody Wants Rules in Space

As space becomes more crowded, there’s little hope for new international rules to make it safer.

Debris from a crashing Chinese rocket hurtling toward Earth and a Russian projectile-shooting spy satellite are the two examples of a big problem: too few rules governing how nations behave in space. Wednesday on Capitol Hill, lawmakers pressed Biden administration officials on what the United States can do to set some hard boundaries. The answer: The United States wants norms in space, but don’t expect anything legally binding anytime soon.  

There are some internationally agreed upon rules for how nations can use space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty says countries can’t place weapons of mass destruction in space. But the treaty doesn’t prohibit putting other weapons in space, shooting at satellites with anti-satellite rockets, or launching large objects that will come crashing back down to Earth in lots of pieces with unpredictable trajectories. 

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn, opened the hearing by lamenting a lack of U.S. leadership in establishing rules to curb such behavior. “It seems we’ve given up on the idea of ropes or any punishment. But we’re just going for spider webs instead. Is that the best we can do?”

Answered the State Department’s Bruce Turner, “I think we’re trying to make the best out of what is possible at this given moment in time.” That does not “exclude the possibility of legally binding treaties down the road, but that’s not where we are, given the kinds of competition posed by Russia and China.” 

The United States instead will reach out to like-minded countries to establish non-legally binding norms, said Turner, who leads the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. That in turn could “create peer pressure” on countries like China and Russia to align with what other countries are doing. “And maybe over time develop more far-reaching measures,” he said. 

All of that suggests the United States and other nations are far away from establishing a new treaty on space behavior. During his testimony yesterday, Turner brought up the downsides of such agreements.

“The advantage of a treaty is that it’s a legal you could argue a violation is more straightforward. Except if you’ve ever worked with a lawyer, you know one of the things you get into is these very difficult and complicated interpretations of what the treaty actually says.” 

He said the lack of a legally binding mechanism to punish bad behavior in space “does not mean you can’t call someone out for violating that norm and you can’t take potential action if an actor is not complying.” He argued that when countries like China and Russia take unsafe actions in space, they could face diplomatic and public pressure through social media. 

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., took exception to Turner’s reasoning. “Hoping one of our adversaries will be shamed on social media does not seem like an effective strategy here,” he said.

But Russia and China aren’t the only barriers to new treaties or other international rules covering space. The United States isn’t interested either, even if certain lawmakers would like it to be, said Brian Weeden, technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation. U.S. agencies aren’t pushing for new legally binding space rules because they don’t want to be bound by them. 

“There’s also the issue that a new treaty has to be based on some sort of common concern between the parties, and right now the U.S., Russia, and China don’t agree on much at all.”

The current discussion on norms can serve as a good foundation for a broader discussion, he said. “But ultimately, I think the [United States] needs to step up and put something firmer on the table, particularly with regard to anti-satellite testing.”

The United States instead has focused on safety issues and sharing information between countries about what’s in space. It’s one area where the U.S. military releases information publicly that would be kept secret if it were about Chinese or Russian movements on Earth,  

“We actually publish all of our information out there so that the Russians and Chinese can get it. We have the best network out there to determine what’s in orbit, and for flight safety purposes we publish that to everyone,” Brig. Gen. Richard Zellmann, the deputy director of United States Space Command, told Defense One during a visit to Space Command headquarters in March. “In fact, if we see Russian objects that are going to collide with Russian objects or Chinese objects with Chinese objects, we let them know. They don’t always respond to us. We would like them to. But we let them know that this is an unsafe situation, much in the same way the FAA would help regulate the safety of flight.”

The United States has a lot more objects in space than any other nation: 1,897 as of the end of last year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, versus China’s 412 and Russia’s 176. So the United States has a big interest in limiting the amount of space debris that could affect those assets. A major accident in space would also hurt the global economy, as large economic and market entities rely on satellites not only for communication but also the timing signals that guide stock trades and even ATM transactions.

But China is rapidly fielding more satellites and even other countries’ microsatellite constellations will make the job of U.S. Space Command more difficult, said Zellman. 

“You have to catalogue all of those things. You have to maintain custody of all of those. One of the difficulties and one of the reasons the [United States] in general is pushing more toward a policy of responsible behavior, as opposed to any kind of treaty arrangement, is that there are some problems when it comes to verification from a space perspective. Very difficult and we don’t have a lot of people up there.”

It will also become much harder to characterize satellites as benign or hostile, he said. ”It used to be, in the past, that we would know where an object was and that was all we cared about. Because if we knew where an object was then we could predict if something would collide with it. Now I need to know where it is… What’s it doing? Why is it so close to me? Can it harm me? If so, how? And all of these things take a lot more assets to determine. That’s where the challenge will be.”

Discussions on space norms are continuing. The United Nations last year passed a resolution encouraging countries to look at security threats in space to find areas of common interest. This week, it published responses from a wide number of countries including the United States, China, and Russia. 

But there’s a big difference between the position of the three countries on what space safety means. The latter two have been pushing for a ban on weapons in space, through a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, or the PPWT, since 2008. But the United States looks at weapons in space — one possibility is anti-ICBM defenses —  as a fundamentally different issue than shooting rockets into space to cause space debris or launch satellites that can attack other satellites. 

The PPWT “doesn't say anything about ground-based [anti-satellite] weapons, nor does it have any verification mechanisms,” said Weeden. “Most of us believe that the PPWT is really aimed at preventing the [United States] from deploying space-based missile defense interceptors, which the Russians are concerned would undermine their nuclear deterrent.”

The United States has also been reaching out to other nations to establish bilateral agreements on information sharing and norms. U.S. Space Command works with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries through a program called Olympic Defender, to share tactics and procedures for space monitoring and come to agreements about what constitutes unsafe behavior. 

“What you would like to do is build a relationship today so you don’t become adversaries tomorrow,” said Zellman. “So from a responsible behavior perspective we encourage nations to share their data so that we have even better information than we would have otherwise… Like-minded nations have discussed how we would like to operate in a safe and professional manner in the space domain. There’s reasons you want to do that. If you have an understanding of what safe and professional is and you have a misunderstanding, hopefully that misunderstanding doesn’t lead to a miscalculation and that miscalculation doesn’t lead to escalation.”