The complicating role of the private sector in space

Landsat image

By Victoria Samson,
Published by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 17 January 2022


National security in space has long focused on the threat posed by potentially offensive capabilities or behavior of nation-states. However, there is a huge shift in the type of dominant actor in space and this may result in instability, caused by ripple effects disrupting the existing governance structure and demonstrating the slipping rank of Russia as a space superpower. As a result, the fundamental nature of space is changing, and with that change comes disruption as to how the domain has been governed to date. If international governance does not evolve along with the domain, then we run the risk of seeing inadvertent escalations or even conflict between countries as a result.

At this exact moment, we are seeing the increasing dominance of commercial actors in space – specifically the rise of mega-constellations, or large numbers of small satellites flying in formation to provide global coverage for a variety of governmental and commercial uses, including both communications and Earth observation. Consequently, the fundamental nature of space is changing, to one of a domain dominated by commercial actors. This change will have major consequences for international stability, both in terms of how it demonstrates that the old governance structure for space is being left behind – and how it highlights Russia’s declining rank in global space powers. Certain orbits may be effectively taken over by a handful of entities, and there will be competition for useful portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. With eyes on the sky everywhere, there will be little or no room for state secrets – for better or worse. This is happening at the same time that Russia’s space identity is floundering, which may further upset the stability of the domain of space.

As of November 2021, there are roughly 4,800 active satellites in orbit around Earth, around 1,850 of which belong to just one entity: SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation (Thompson 2021). This change has happened very quickly, as Starlink satellites just began to be launched in May 2019 (O’Callaghan 2019). This is only the first wave of the mega-constellations as well. While it is hard to say exactly how many satellites will be launched as part of this new use of space, there are requests or plans for mega-constellations that could mean well over 100,000 new satellites could potentially be in low Earth orbit. While not all of these satellites will be launched, even a small fraction of that proposed number will fundamentally shift the situation so that the major actors in space will no longer be nation-states (as has been the case to date) but the private sector, changing the timbre of the space domain.

This leads to challenges in discussing space security issues: Space is a shared, international domain; if we cannot include all the stakeholders in the discussions, we will not come to complete solutions to the problems.

But first, some background.

A little history

The commercial sector is not new to space. Commercial entities have been active in space for decades now; in fact, it was a dispute over what should be the extent of their role in space that shaped part of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Article VI of that treaty notes:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities …. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. (Outer Space Treaty 1967)

This was a compromise between the United States and the USSR, in which the latter argued that there was no such thing as commercial space. Having language requiring state actors to carry out “authorization and continuing supervision” gave the United States the flexibility it wanted to develop a commercial space sector while ensuring that there would still be national oversight.

A lack of coordination

One way in which the rise of these mega-constellations may complicate international security in space is through concerns about these satellites hampering access to certain orbits. While slots in geosynchronous Earth orbit are set by the International Telecommunication Union, there is no international entity coordinating orbital slots at low Earth orbit. This means that, given the potentially tens of thousands of satellites that could be launched given company plans, certain orbits could be de facto ceded to a handful of entities – in defiance of Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which says that space “is not subject to national appropriation.” Consequently, this could lead to strife or competition over certain orbits.

It is possible that, given the number of satellites that companies are asking the United States’ Federal Communications Commission for broadcasting rights to, certain orbits may reach their carrying capacities – meaning that they are at the maximum number of satellites that can be operated, as defined by physical and radiofrequency interference aspects. This could lead to disputes over which country has the right to use certain orbits, or, alternatively, resentment when one country’s commercial sector essentially takes over a particular orbit.

Competition over parts of the electromagnetic spectrum is another possible path for international security issues to arise from mega-constellations. Satellites are only as good as their ability to receive and communicate information, which requires spectrum; if one or a few entities from one country use up all the readily accessible spectrum for specific capabilities at certain orbits, that could possibly lead to confrontation as well. For the most part, the companies launching mega-constellations are largely based in the West, which can shape the global perception of their effects and intent – although there have been some plans for at least one Chinese company to launch a mega-constellation of potentially 13,000 satellites, and the South Koreans have expressed interest in their own mega-constellation.

Moving away from the specific governance challenges presented by mega-constellations, there are also concerns that there may be a destabilizing effect when the commercial sector takes on capabilities that used to be solely done by governments. However, the case is not clear-cut; commercial capabilities in space could actually enhance international security and stability, depending on what they are and how they are carried out.

For example, space situational awareness (SSA), or the tracking and providing of knowledge about the space environment and human activities in space, is a capability that used to be just something that a handful of governments could provide but is now becoming more widely available through a burgeoning commercial sector. This actually can help shore up stability in several ways. First, these commercial providers – whose business, after all, is selling images of what you see looking up at space – are often freer to share information than some government sources may be able to, due to the sensitivity of their sources or information. Therefore, with a healthy private sector in space, multiple sources of space situational awareness could be used to confirm official statements about activities on-orbit and thereby be a source of verifying agreed-upon responsible behaviors.

Since space is a public good, there is an argument to be made from the perspective of spaceflight safety that there should be a minimum amount of SSA offered to all space actors, with commercial SSA being used as a complement to activities in orbit that require more accurate SSA (such as in-orbit servicing, active debris removal, and so forth). This is presently being done by the US government, which shares warnings about potential close approaches or conjunctions to all space operators. The concern is more about whether governments will use the rise of commercial space situational awareness as an excuse to eventually cut back on sharing their own SSA data.

One complication arising from the proliferation of commercial SSA capabilities is that it lays waste to the idea that objects in space can remain classified, because with multiple SSA systems coming online – not just commercial ones but also global national SSA capabilities – it is becoming impossible to keep objects in orbit a secret. With activities in orbit becoming more visible and shared outside of government circles, this could be stabilizing, in that multiple sources of SSA can demonstrate good behavior and verify agreements, by shining a spotlight on national security-related activities that countries might have otherwise preferred to keep under wraps.

Another capability that used to be solely held by governments is Earth observation – looking down at Earth from space. There has been a real explosion in the number of commercial companies providing Earth observations in recent years, including Planet, Maxar, and Spire, to name just a few of the many companies with satellites that monitor changes on Earth by taking pictures of our planet much more often. This change, due largely to a decreased cost to access to space, smaller satellites, and more frequent launches, has resulted in higher revisit rates and therefore improved and more up-to-date imaging of Earth.

One side effect of this development is that open-source intelligence has been pushed forward; it has propelled a lot of the awareness about China’s new missile silos fields, for example (Korda and Kristensen 2021). There are concerns about possibly sharing information about militarily sensitive sites, leading to a recent decision by the US Commerce Department to put new restrictions on how frequently – and for how long – commercial remote sensing satellites can spend over these types of sites (Hitchens 2021). But the core of the issue is that this sort of capability is no longer the sole provenance of government entities, and government policies need to recognize this. If one tries to limit the capabilities of the US commercial sector, what ends up happening is that the capabilities are driven overseas, beyond the control of the US government. This capability is out there in the commercial sector, whether the United States likes it or not. Policy makers need to accept this and reflect this new reality.

Along those lines, space is often almost ritually automatically stamped as classified; for example, sensitive military satellites are often not acknowledged in the US government’s catalogue of space objects. However, this does not make the existence of those satellites a secret, and if the average amateur satellite watcher in their backyard can detect these satellites – which is the case – then imagine what foreign powers can do. By classifying these objects, the United States complicates the sharing of information and limits complete understanding of the space domain while not actually accomplishing its goal of keeping information about these satellites out of the public domain.

What it all means for geopolitical changes

This shift toward the dominance of space by commercial entities is leaving Russia behind, a fact that has destabilizing security implications as well. Russia does not have much of a commercial space sector, which is not surprising, given its historical antipathy toward the private sector in space. Russia’s civil space program is struggling to find its footing and has had some extremely public quality control lapses recently (Axe 2021).

Roscosmos – the Russian State Corporation for Space Activities, the organization in charge of Russia’s civil space program – has been racked with allegations of corruption, to the point where the Russian government has made reporting on the doings of Roscosmos off-limits to foreigners (Moscow Times 2021). Russian launch vehicles are no longer the sole conduit for access to the International Space Station, effectively reducing one place where the United States and Russia were cooperating in space. In fact, the International Space Station itself is coming up on the end of its lifetime. While there is interest in extending it, at some point, the space station will be retired, eliminating one of the most effective forms of space diplomacy that we have seen in the space age. At present, it would appear that the next space station that NASA might contribute to is one created by a commercial consortium, solidifying even more the role of the commercial sector in space.

This development leaves open one obvious pathway for Russia to maintain geopolitical dominance and national prestige in space: through its military space capabilities. By continuing to invest in its counterspace capabilities and programs, Russia can prove its relevance in the new world order that is shaping up right now. This has very clear implications for global security and stability, as Russian counterspace efforts shape the United States’ military space programs and plans (and vice versa).

This was underlined for the international community on November 15, 2021, when astronauts on the International Space Station were told to take cover in their Soyuz (Russian) and Dragon (US) spacecraft in order to protect themselves from incoming space debris. The culprit? Russia admitted to having held a test that destroyed one of its own derelict satellites (Roulette 2021). The impact by a direct-ascent interceptor of Russia’s Nudol ground-based system resulted in an estimated 1,500 trackable pieces of debris; furthermore, it was done at an altitude (approximately 480 kilometers) where the debris will be around for years, if not a decade or more.

That is not the only counterspace capability Russia has been developing of late. Russia has been working since 2010 to test technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations that might become the basis for some sort of co-orbital anti-satellite capability; some of these technologies might be linked to a co-orbital anti-satellite program dating back to the Cold War-era (Secure World Foundation 2021). Additionally, Russia appears to be working on a new co-orbital program called Burevestnik. While it is possible that some of Russia’s work here could be used to develop the ability to inspect or surveil other satellites, there have been two tests where two sub-satellites have been deployed at a high velocity, which indicates that there might be a weapons element to at least some of their rendezvous and proximity operations work. Russia has integrated electronic warfare into its military operations, giving it the capability to jam area GPS receivers (but not the ability to use radiofrequency interference to interfere with the satellites themselves). Russia has also been working on a legacy program that is attempting to create an airborne-laser platform that could target optical sensors of satellites.

Stepping away from Russia’s domestic investments in counterspace capabilities, it is possible that this vulnerability in Russia’s stature stems at least in part from the changing nature of space – which may be a factor in its interest in allying with China on space-related issues. Russia and China have their own complicated relationship, independent of the United States, and this alliance has not always been present. For example, Russia allowed the United States to keep China out of the International Space Station, something that the United States could not have accomplished if Russia – as a major partner of the International Space Station and responsible for half of the station – was not nominally on-board with the idea. This makes the memorandum of understanding that Russia and China signed in March 2021 to develop an International Lunar Research Station even more striking, because it puts the two together to cooperate in lunar exploration (Jones 2021).

A return to the rivalries of the Space Age?

In fact, it seems that we are seeing the possible creation of a new bipolar world order in space. But unlike during the early part of the Space Age when the two poles consisted of the United States and the USSR, this new one has the United States on one side and China (with Russia) on the other.

China is working on its own space station, the Tiangong, which it can use for soft power outreach and diplomatic initiatives (much like how the International Space Station has been used by the United States). Meanwhile, Russia and China have encouraged countries to join them in their lunar research initiative, which could counter US plans to get back to the moon. The United States has been promoting the Artemis Accords as a way to ensure that lunar exploration and use are done in a manner consistent with the principles enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty. While 14 countries have signed onto the Accords to date (with France indicating in November 2021 that it was interested in doing so as well), neither Russia nor China have signed on and both have expressed concerns about the Accords (Smith 2021). Additionally, while in theory the International Lunar Research Station and Artemis Accords are not contradictory and countries could participate in both, it is unclear whether that could happen in reality.

The fundamental nature of space is changing to one of a domain that is dominated by commercial actors. This change will have consequences for international stability, both in terms of how it demonstrates that the old governance structure for space is being left behind as the domain evolves and how it highlights Russia’s declining rank in global space powers. It is important to work to develop new governance of space to meet the emerging needs of this ecosystem. Otherwise, we run the risk of inadvertent escalation and even conflict in space that can extend down to Earth.

See: Original Article