Sustaining the Space Environment for the Future
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
I am pleased to join you here today to discuss space, its importance to our daily lives, and the need for international cooperation to maintain the long-term sustainability of the space environment. I’ll explain what I mean by that during the course of my talk. Of course, I speak from an American perspective, but I am also here to gain a better understanding of Vietnam’s interests in space.
As we’ve just discussed, space plays a vital role in almost every aspect of our daily lives worldwide. Space systems enable us to communicate around the world; facilitate financial operations; enhance weather forecasting and environmental monitoring; and enable navigation globally and locally on highways and streets in personal automobiles. Space also expands our scientific frontier; warns us of natural disasters; and helps us monitor arms control treaties and increase stability among nations.
Just as our use of space has evolved in the past fifty-five years since the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched from Earth, the space environment has also been transformed by actors and their actions. When the space age began, the opportunities to use space were available to only a few nations, and there were limited consequences for irresponsible behavior or accidents. Today, space is the domain of a growing number of satellite operators; approximately 60 nations and government consortia operate satellites, including Vietnam, as well as numerous commercial and academic satellite operators. This great transformation of the space environment has greatly benefited the global economy and has brought people around the world closer together, but it also presents challenges.
While it is becoming increasingly easier to access, as well as to benefit from, space is also becoming increasingly congested. Many countries and space operators have great plans to increase their space capabilities in the near future. Vietnam, for example, plans to put approximately 14 satellites into orbit by 2020, a feat which will make Vietnam the fastest growing space power in Southeast Asia. However, decades of space activity have littered Earth’s orbit with debris. As the world continues to increase its activities in space, the possibility of collisions in space also increases. This situation means we need to think carefully through how we can all operate there safely and responsibly so that we can ensure that your generation, and the generations that follow you, can also benefit from space as well. The interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us.
You’re probably wondering how a big, seemingly empty environment like space could be so crowded that we worry about collisions. While it’s true that a lot of space is relatively empty, most of our operations are conducted close to Earth, including the operations of Vietnam’s communication satellite Vinasat 1. It is this environment that is becoming increasingly congested. The U.S. Department of Defense tracks roughly 22,000 objects in various orbits, of which only 1,100 are active satellites. That’s about 6000 metric tons of debris orbiting the Earth, and these numbers do not include the hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris smaller than 10 centimeters that are too small to track, but just as potentially deadly to satellites and manned spaceflight when traveling at speeds of up to 17,000 kilometers an hour.
Some pieces of debris are simply “dead” satellites or pieces of the rockets that got them there, but others are the results of accidents or mishaps, such as from the 2009 collision between two satellites. Some debris, however, is the result of intentionally destructive events, such as China’s test in space of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007. Experts warn that the current quantity and density of man-made debris significantly increases the odds of future damaging collisions. Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.
The international community is more reliant on space than ever and the long-term sustainability of our space activities is at serious risk from space debris, as I just described, and from irresponsible actors and their actions. Irresponsible acts against space systems would not just harm the space environment, but would also disrupt services that the citizens, companies, and militaries around the world depend on. Ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment is in the vital interests of the United States and the entire global community.
Improving the long-term sustainability and stability of space begins first with enhancing our shared situational awareness and understanding of what is in space, sharing information to avoid collisions of space objects, and working internationally to minimize the problems of orbital debris. To that end, the United States works with other nations, commercial entities, and intergovernmental organizations to improve our shared ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems. Such improvements illustrate the ongoing commitment of the United States to promoting the safety of flight for all space-faring nations.
The United States also collaborates with industry and foreign nations to improve space object databases and warn of dangerous approaches between orbiting objects that could potentially lead to collisions. This is particularly important given collisions such as the February 2009 collision between a privately operated Iridium communications satellite and an inactive Russian military satellite, as well as a lot of near-collisions. To help prevent future collisions, the United States has improved its capacity to analyze objects in space and to predict potential hazards to spacecraft. The United States also provides notifications to other government and commercial satellite operators when U.S. space analysts predict that an operator’s satellite may pass within a close distance of another spacecraft or space debris.
To address the growing problem of orbital debris, the United States has expanded its engagement within the United Nations and with other governments and non-governmental organizations. The United States has adopted international standards to minimize debris that are stricter than the U.N. Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. We are also working to develop stricter international and industry standards to slow down the accumulation of debris in space, and to develop and implement international “best practices” of responsible behavior in space that will put us all on a more sustainable path.
Finally, the United States is also pursuing pragmatic transparency and confidence-building measures – or TCBMs – to strengthen stability in space and promote safe and responsible operations in space. TCBMs are a means by which governments can address challenges and share information with the aim of creating mutual understanding and reducing tensions. Through TCBMs we can address areas such as orbital debris, space situational awareness, and collision avoidance, as well as undertake activities that will help to increase familiarity and trust and encourage openness among space actors.
Perhaps one of the most beneficial TCBMs for ensuring sustainability and security in space could be the adoption of “best practice” guidelines or a “code of conduct.” On January 17th of this year, the United States announced that it had decided to join with the European Union and other spacefaring nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. In the Asia-Pacific Region, both Japan and Australia have also endorsed developing such an International Code of Conduct. In her statement announcing the decision, Secretary of State Clinton said,
“The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk. […] Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.”
The United States views the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct as a good foundation for working with other spacefaring nations to develop a non-legally binding International Code. An International Code of Conduct, if adopted, would help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust in space by establishing guidelines to reduce the risks of debris-generating events and to avoid the danger of collisions. As more countries field space capabilities, it is in all of our interests to work together to establish internationally-accepted “best practices” to ensure that the safety and sustainability of space is protected.
Today, the world is increasingly inter-connected through space, and we are increasingly dependent on space systems. The risks associated with irresponsible actions in space mean that ensuring the long-term sustainability and stability of the space environment is in the vital interest of the entire world community. As the U.S. National Space Policy says, “All nations have the right to use and explore space, but with this right also comes responsibility. […] [I]t is the shared interest of all nations to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.” The United States calls on governments around the world to work together to adopt approaches for responsible activity in space in order to preserve this right for the benefit of future generations.
Thank you very much.