Not enough space in space

The reported death of a Tamil Nadu man struck by a falling meteorite is a tragic reminder that outer space is not quite so distant after all.

I was a little over a year old when the world marvelled at the success of Sputnik 1, the first satellite to exit and orbit our planet. As I grew into my teens, the space race gathered more momentum, with its crowning moment being, of course, Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. At the time, the whole idea of space exploration seemed to be an expensive game for the Cold War superpowers—the United States and the USSR—to compete for the glamour of dominating the heavens. Jawaharlal Nehru, of course, disagreed with this notion. He believed that science is not only an “individual’s search for truth”, but rather something that could be “infinitely more than that if it worked for the community.” His vision and wisdom led him to launch India on a decades-long journey that has placed us amongst the world’s top space powers.

Today, space exploration and research is no longer an affair of two superpowers—it is a collective global endeavour that is indispensable for economic development. ISRO is critical in the advancement in the fields of remote sensing, meteorology, agriculture, irrigation planning, disaster management, and global positioning and navigation systems. Its space technologies have helped us discover solutions—literally out of this world—to our earthly problems.

There has been an exciting expansion of non-state actors involved in space technology. In the west, even educational institutions have launched small satellites. Other players like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have entered the fray, offering trips into space for ordinary folks.

But the expansion of such private actors in space exploration and research is a double-edged sword: on the road leading to outer space, we might experience bumper-to-bumper traffic. We will need to address overcrowding of man-made satellites in space, and attend to space debris—there are, for instance, 1,50,000 pieces of a Chinese satellite floating about in space after an accident, and Ecuador’s only satellite collided catastrophically with debris in 2013.

LAST WORDIllustration: Bhaskaran

Unfortunately, not all space activity will be legitimate, and we will see an inevitable rise of hostile activities. Countries that pursue civil space technologies could always divert them for military purposes. There could be deliberate attempts to destroy other nations’ space assets as competition mounts. An arms race in space is more than likely. Military and security-oriented applications have replaced the predominantly exploratory ventures of decades past.

All this requires us to craft global agreements on regulating outer space. The current lack of consensus among the major spacefaring states is worrying—despite the UN, we don’t really have an effective space regime. The existing Outer Space Treaty has a number of weaknesses. It regulates the non-placement of Weapons of Mass Destruction, but ignores conventional weapons that could be used to damage other states’ satellites. There is a need for greater definitional clarity: What exactly are space weapons? How do you define the “defensive use of outer space” or the “peaceful use of outer space”? In fact, even the definition of an astronaut is not clear, its typical meaning being “personnel of a spacecraft”, irrespective of whether this person is a weapons expert, a space tourist on a Virgin Galactic, or George Clooney in the movie Gravity!

India, of course, must play a key role in achieving agreement. We have the technology, the human resources and the capacity to play a significant part in the world’s management of the global commons, from cyber space to—of course—outer space.

The need of our era is an outer space regime that reflects and complements our international regime here on earth. We discovered and settled the earth through conflict, war and destruction; let us discover and regulate space through cooperation and compromise.