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Space: It’s Getting Too Crowded Up There – OpEd

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By Ranvir S. Nayar*

China last month lodged a protest at the UN, accusing American billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX of irresponsible and unsafe behavior in space and of twice forcing its Tiangong space station to take evasive action.

Days earlier, it was the US that was complaining about a Russian military exercise that involved blowing up a satellite in orbit. Washington said that the debris created as a result of the explosion was spread over too large an area and included too many pieces large enough to harm other objects.

SpaceX is one of the latest and most sizable entrants to the space business. It has launched 2,000 satellites to form a constellation that provides global coverage of communications, among other services. It has also launched missions into space and plans to eventually embark on a manned mission to the moon for the state-owned NASA. The fierce rival of SpaceX is Blue Origin, owned by another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, which is also fighting to establish itself as the leader, at least in the US, in all things space.

The list of private entrepreneurs aiming to carve out a piece of space for themselves, their companies or their customers is long and getting longer by the year, as more and more ambitious people from other nations join in. Meanwhile, some of the governments of small nations with deep pockets have set up their own space missions.

While space is big enough, most of the interest right now is in a limited area close to Earth’s orbit, leading to overcrowding. There are already thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of satellites and debris from older satellites, rockets and other human-made objects circling the Earth.

This belt around the Earth is certain to become even more cluttered, as hundreds of satellite launches are scheduled around the world over the next few years. Until now, space has always been about first come, first served or finders keepers, without any global regulation on how it will be utilized. Little wonder, then, that only rich or militarily and politically important countries have established a presence in space, with a vast majority of the 193 members of the UN having no role to play.

Of the 3,372 active satellites as of Jan. 1, more than half — 1,897 — belong to the US, 412 to China, 197 to Russia and the rest are shared around the world. Meanwhile, of the 24,943 human-made objects ever put into orbit, the US, the former Soviet bloc, China, the UK and Japan account for the bulk. Algeria and South Africa are the only African nations to have a satellite in space, while none of the small island developing states have one.

With the increasing number of launches, more incidents like those involving SpaceX and the Russian test are likely. Moreover, smaller and poorer countries are likely to be denied the chance to use space for their own purposes for a long time, if not forever, as other nations and private firms carve out chunks for themselves.

It is high time that the UN’s Outer Space Treaty got some regulatory teeth to control the number of launches each country can have. And that figure has to include all the satellites launched by governments, private companies, universities and nongovernmental organizations in each country. Perhaps, under the aegis of the UN, the global community could agree on a quota earmarking exclusive rights to space for either individual countries or regional multilateral bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the EU, Arab League, African Union and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Alternatively, since the wherewithal for space research and exploitation is currently restricted to just a few nations, the global community could discuss and work toward a treaty governing the use of space and how to distribute the benefits of any research or activity fairly to all countries.

Just as there is a treaty — even if it is only partially effective — regulating each nation’s maritime exclusive economic zones, it is important to have similar restrictions imposed in space to ensure that it is protected for posterity and every single human, rather than allowing rampant and uncontrolled colonization by those who can afford it and who have the capabilities. Space, just like the atmosphere, belongs to every living being and it is important to ensure that everyone has equal and fair access to it.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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