Last year, which marked the sixtieth anniversary of the first artificial satellite in orbit, a record number of orbiting objects were registered with the United Nations, reflecting the growing interest of all types of actors in participating in the frontier field of space exploration and innovation. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), established in 1958, works with Governments and the wider space community across policy, legal and technical capacity-building aspects of supporting global activities in the space environment. It also engages actors in discussions on how to best address the fact that space is becoming more congested and contested while offering a growing pool of benefits to humanity.
Space for Sustainable Development
Utilizing space contributes positively to a range of policy areas, including climate and weather monitoring, access to health care and education, water management, efficiency in transportation and agriculture, peacekeeping, security and humanitarian assistance. The list of earth-impacting space applications is nearly endless, and many other valuable contributions are currently in development or being researched.
With the adoption of the three major international frameworks in 2015—the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change—the international community has pledged to address the biggest challenges defining our era. Space-based technologies play an ever-increasing role in accelerating the achievement of those pledges.
To assess the impact of space technologies on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UNOOSA joined the European Global Navigation Satellite System Agency in an early 2018 study demonstrating that 65 out of 169 targets underpinning the SDGs directly benefit from the use of Earth observation and navigation satellite systems.1 Incorporating telecommunication satellites, which were not covered in the study, significantly increases the number of targets affected directly.
With the adoption of the SDGs, UNOOSA was provided with an additional framework, and we strive throughout our activities and initiatives to promote and facilitate the use of space to help achieve the 17 Goals. We employ a cross-cutting approach aimed at contributing to the use of space science and technology as invaluable tools to help implement the SDGs.
One of the most important issues we are tackling in this regard is addressing the significant gender gap through the “Space for Women” Project to promote and enable more women and girls to play an active and equal role in space science, technology, innovation and exploration. In the context of SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, UNOOSA maintains the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), which is used to enhance the use of space technology for disaster risk reduction and emergency operations aimed at saving lives and preventing property damage. Utilizing outer space not only holds promise for humanity but also contributes to improved “Life on land” (SDG 15) for all beings through monitoring ecosystems, protecting wildlife, and keeping track of and raising awareness about deforestation and desertification in order to preserve natural habitats and halt the loss of biodiversity.
Space for Everyone
Since space has far-reaching applications, all countries should be supported in accessing the benefits of space-based technology that facilitates sustainable development. As more countries invest financial and political capital in the space environment, and the world becomes increasingly dependent on space, UNOOSA is committed to delivering the benefits of space to everyone everywhere.
In order to help countries obtain access to the benefits of space technologies and applications, in 2010, UNOOSA launched the Human Space Technology Initiative (HSTI), involving more nations in human spaceflight and other space exploration-related activities. HSTI provides a platform for exchanging information, fostering collaboration between spacefaring and non-spacefaring countries, and encouraging emerging and developing countries to take part in space research and benefit from space applications. The Initiative is part of the effort to allow access to space education, data, technology and research, and creating access to space for all.2
In coordination with United Nations-wide activities, such as the Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, UNOOSA identifies the best use of advances in technology to deliver the mandates of the Organization as a whole.
UNOOSA is also working directly with Member States on issues related to access to space. In 2015, as part of HSTI, we established an unprecedented cooperation programme with the Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) called KiboCUBE. The programme enables educational and research institutions from developing countries to utilize the JAXA Kibo module to deploy small cube-sized satellites from the International Space Station. These ‘CubeSats’ are designed, developed, manufactured, tested and operated by the selected institution. In May 2018, JAXA, UNOOSA and the Kenyan Space Agency broke records for international cooperation in space by realizing the deployment of Kenya’s first-ever satellite and the first satellite launched under the auspices of the United Nations.
The partnerships under HSTI, such as KiboCUBE, employ a triangular approach to capacity-building in space, with UNOOSA bringing together spacefaring nations to help non-spacefaring nations develop their own space capabilities. The Office has played a crucial role in bridging the space divide by channelling appropriate opportunities provided by countries having space capabilities to institutions in developing countries that would otherwise have little to no prospect of carrying out space-related scientific research.
The (R)evolution in the Space Sector
There are already many tangible changes and challenges to the traditional ways of conducting space activities, with many new actors entering the field and new technologies affecting our efforts. When the space age began with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, only two countries were active in the space environment. Today, we have over 70 national and regional space agencies working to extend our knowledge of space, and apply space science and technology to improve the lives of people worldwide. Thousands of other actors are also joining the space community, with a well-established private space sector.
The growing number of actors has implications for the very nature of space activities, which is clearly supported by recent statistics and milestones. As UNOOSA discharges the responsibilities of the United Nations Secretary-General stemming from international space law adopted under the auspices of the Organization, we maintain the Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Last year, of the record number of 553 objects registered with UNOOSA, 489 were satellites.3 With an improved capacity to release multiple satellites with a single launch, the total number of such objects almost doubled the previous record of 242 from 2014.4Today, over 1,800 operational objects are in orbit,5 many of which provide services and data driving sustainable development around the world.
Launching a number of satellites with the same purpose, forming a ‘constellation’, is another evolution of the traditional way in which such objects are deployed. In 2017, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), using one of its most reliable rockets, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre a record 104 satellites in a single flight;6 88 of the satellites were to form a constellation that would be used to image the Earth at low cost.7Such developments show how space technology is evolving and serve as a pertinent example of how the governance of the space environment is becoming increasingly multifaceted.
With the rapid expansion of stakeholders accessing space, the estimated value of the space sector reached an all-time high of $383.5 billion8 in 2017, with commercial space activities accounting for over 75 per cent of that value. Such statistics demonstrate the extent to which private entities have become major players in the field. Projections for the future value of the sector show it rising at an exponential pace, reaching $1.1 trillion to $2.7 trillion over the next 30 years.9 Such numbers make space an even more attractive venture while creating additional challenges to policy, law, science and technology.
Debating New Realities in Space
Since the beginning of the space age, effective international cooperation has been fundamental to ensuring the safe, secure and sustainable use of space. The governance of space, described as humanity’s most expansive global commons, has become increasingly mature due to the growing number of actors, both governmental and non-governmental, as well as new technologies and approaches such as public-private partnerships and private funding initiatives.
Since the very beginning of space activities in the late 1950s, the United Nations, through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), has served as the venue for debating ventures in outer space, national endeavours, international space law and challenges to the way we conduct space activities. As the global facilitator for such discussions, and serving as the COPUOS secretariat, UNOOSA plays a leading role in supporting the intergovernmental policymaking process. Through COPUOS, UNOOSA supports policy discussions on emerging space affairs issues, including extraction of space resources, space traffic management and the governance of small-satellite ‘mega constellations’. It is, therefore, crucial for the United Nations to continue engaging with stakeholders to support and promote dialogue among Governments, industry and the private sector, academia and civil society to effectively tackle challenges and address changes in the space environment.
The Global Goals are designed to collectively address global challenges. Space technology can and will be used to support such endeavours. But while recent developments in outer space strengthen our efforts to attain a sustainable world, space remains a limited resource that must be protected through one joint vision. With an increasing number of actors, including more and more States and private entities entering the space arena, the world today finds itself at the same decisive crossroads as in 1957, shortly after the launch of Sputnik.
From supporting global efforts, to the use of space technology for sustainable development, to maintaining the normative framework governing activities in the space environment, the United Nations has a long legacy of facilitating international cooperation in outer space. UNOOSA is proud to represent such a legacy as we continue to work to bring the benefits of space exploration to everyone everywhere.
The author acknowledges the contributions from Ian Freeman, Markus Woltran, and Martin Stasko (all UNOOSA), in the preparation of this paper.
1. United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, European Global Navigation Satellite System and Copernicus: Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, ST/SPACE/71 (Vienna, United Nations, January 2018), p. 2. Available at http://www.unoosa.org/res/oosadoc/data/documents/2018/stspace/stspace71_0_html/st_space_71E.pdf.
2. Ayami Kojima, Daniel Garcia Yárnoz and Simonetta Di Pippo, “Access to space: A new approach by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs”, Acta Astronautica, vol. 152, (November 2018), p.p. 201-207. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2018.07.041.
3. United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, 2017 Annual Report, ST/SPACE/72 (Vienna, United Nations, 2018), p. p. 6-7. Available at https://goo.gl/pbH6LS
4. United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, “Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space“ (8 November 2018). Available at http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/osoindex/search-ng.jspx?lf_id.
5. Union of Concerned Scientists, “In-depth details on the 1,886 satellites currently orbiting Earth”, UCS Satellite Database. Available at https://goo.gl/pNrVsh (accessed 17 October 2018).
6. India, Department of Space, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), “PSLV-C37 successfully launches 104 satellites in a single flight” (15 February 2017). Available at https://goo.gl/vpNEX3.
7. Robbie Schingler, “Planet launches satellite constellation to image the whole planet daily”, Planet Inc., 14 February 2017. Available at https://goo.gl/vMZNfS.
8. Space Foundation, “Space Foundation Report reveals global space economy at $383.5 billion in 2017”, 19 July 2018. Available at https://goo.gl/R5sVKb.
9. Michael Sheetz, The space industry will be worth nearly $3 trillion in 30 years, Bank of America predicts”, CNBC, 31 October 2017. Available at https://goo.gl/eRPKRs.