Creating laws for space’s ‘Wild West’

Timibi Agnaba-Genti says outer space has become a “completely wild west” as an increasing number of government and commercial entities make their way into the vaguely legal environment above Earth.

That expansion, says a professor of space and society at the Arizona State University (ASU) Interplanetary Initiative, raises the potential for more economic, political and military conflict — or for a new era of international cooperation.

“We need rules about how humans are going to control themselves in space — independently of Earth,” Agnaba told The Hill in a recent interview.

When faced with questions such as how to dispose of waste, how to mine resources and share vital goods, including water and oxygen, “we have this marginal mindset from which we can learn and say, ‘Okay. ‘We don’t want to make the same mistakes in space,'” Agnaba said.

“What does sustainability mean,” she asks, “in the context of humanity becoming an interplanetary species?”

It was stability that pushed Agnaba into the emerging discipline of space law. A child of Nigerian immigrants to the UK, she went to Nigeria for law school and later found herself working for the country’s newly established National Space Research and Development Agency, establishing the country’s official position on the growing problem of space debris. helped.

At the time, she was 24 years old, unfamiliar with space and previously uninterested in space.

“It wasn’t like I grew up on Star Trek or Star Wars,” she said.

But his boss at the space agency encouraged him to tackle the problem of space debris from an environmental law perspective. Agnaba said it may seem an odd framework to use in regulating such a hostile and sterile environment – ​​but the unmatched background of space requires exactly such an approach.

“Sustainability is about things that happen in terms of environmental limits with economic objectives and social impacts,” she said.

And rather like oceans – whose size is too small to protect vulnerable, vital coasts – the vastness of space hides the fact that the area available for economic activity is shockingly limited. As such there are resources of oxygen and water needed to survive.

The rise of private space enterprises – which now includes proposals for private space stations, such as Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hills Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Russia-Ukraine, US-China talks but yield little Pete Davidson to travel on Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket The Unexpected Way Investors Are Capitalizing on the JOBS Act (and How You Can) Moreplanned orbital reef, which ASU is helping to design – these questions have been pushed into sharp relief, Agnaba said.

Take the question of water and oxygen: in space they will be scarce, and future astronauts or colonists will either have to bring them along – or mine them from the environment.

But Earth’s mining laws translate poorly to space, Agnaba said. The Comprehensive Legal Treaty for Space Governance – the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which he described as the “Constitution of Space” – prohibits countries from “appropriating” the extraterrestrial environment.

This broadly means not planting flags or claiming territories – a crucial first step for exploiting resources on Earth, such as the hydrogen and oxygen that colonists might have to eat to make air and water.

“But there’s a big problem with all the capitalists,” Agnaba said, “because they’re like, ‘Why would I go to space, invest in finding a mine – and then it’s all over the world?'”

One possible answer is that while the mine could not be appropriated, the resources could.

Countries can say they won’t have pieces of territory on the Moon, “but we will protect the rights of our citizens who actually go and get it.”

The notion of “protection” runs into another glaring hole in the OST: the problem of military activity in space. When the treaty was signed in 1967 by the United States, the then Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, space was accessible only by craft from the two main superpowers.

“We keep saying, ‘Should space be militarized? Should space be weaponised?’ without really recognizing that it’s already there,” Agnaba said. “From day one, we’ve had armies in space. We say we have all this stuff like spaces only for peaceful purposes, but what is ‘peaceful’?

“The American interpretation is peaceful, it means non-aggressive,” he said, but added that during the 1991 Gulf War, space-based surveillance and communications carried missiles to their targets. “Would you say that using GPS to navigate missiles is offensive or not?”

Today, the OST now has 20 more signatories and is believed to bind another 111 “parties” – and the location is more congested than ever.

But Agnaba said that, apart from a lack of guidance on mining issues, the OST does not provide “rules of the road” for the basic cases it has to relocate when two satellites are dangerously close.

This is increasingly risky as the space becomes more crowded. particularly given the growing commitment of the United States – along with major powers including China and Russia – to regard space as A potential “war-fighting domain.”

It raises the stakes of economic or political disputes, becoming shooting wars that destroy major space infrastructure – and spread shrapnel and debris into Earth’s orbit, crippling combatants and spectators alike.

Private actors entering such an environment “have to militarize themselves. So it’s like this world of defense contractors instead of a nice place full of students doing research.”

This is where Agnaba’s approach comes in handy.

“As a person with diversity, equality and inclusiveness – I don’t want a domain that is exclusively militarized or just for the lead actors. As an African, if there are resources, if there are benefits, you know Regular children in Africa should also be able to take advantage of this.

And Africa is in a unique position to influence international space law, Agnaba said, because space law is based on legal agreement or prescription “custom” — the idea that legal rules follow generally accepted practice, rather than its predecessor.

Before the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space in 1957, for example, it was unclear whether it was legal to send a spacecraft into orbit, Agnaba said. It became legal only when the Soviet Union did so and, crucially, other space-going powers – then most notably the US – did not object, and it became enshrined in international customary law.

In any ensuing legal argument over the legality of claiming – or appropriating – resources from orbit, Agnaba believes the framework could set the African Union’s space program to launch next year, with surprising power. Status of.

“For Africans, we want to focus on satellite applications, you know, like the basics of Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications, space science, we want to develop engineering capability.”

But a large part may be through Africa’s influence on space law, she said – because they now have a space industry, they are in a good position to legally back down on the appropriation of US, Chinese or Russian space resources. .

“You don’t need to be technologically advanced to influence governance. You can do it now,” she said.

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