The battle for cooperation in space begins | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 14.06.2012
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Science

The battle for cooperation in space begins

Both the EU and United States are ramping up efforts to increase cooperation in space. But the US has rejected the EU's proposals so far, fearing its right to self-defense could be harmed.

With the European Union in financial turmoil, some aspects of space exploration have already felt the tightening of the bloc’s economic belt.

But the EU has just announced plans to invest in a massive undertaking – it is launching negotiations with state and private sector bodies to regulate outer space activities and deal with the masses of space junk orbiting our planet.

The European Union's draft proposal - "International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities" - was unveiled as 110 participants from more than 40 countries gathered for a multilateral meeting in Vienna.

Frank Asbeck, the EU’s principle advisor for space and security policy, says the proposal aims to address the role of space for current and future spacefaring nations.

"It will provide the rules of the road for acceptable behavior in space," Asbeck told DW.

nasa international space station

No universal, binding code, covering space conduct exists

Overcrowded space

Over the past decade, the dominant spacefaring nations, Russia and the US, have been joined by emerging nations, such as India and China. Other countries are not yet involved in space travel, but do operate satellites. In fact, 64 countries control about 1,100 active satellites in orbit today.

When these satellites cease to function, they become junk – space debris that either remains in orbit or eventually succumbs to the Earth's gravitational pull.

Public, military and commercial satellites are responsible for the collection of data that is seen as vital for technological innovation and life here on earth.

But there is no binding agreement to regulate what should be done with the hardware becomes defunct.

The European Union's proposal, says Asbeck, would be a big step forward for the monitoring of outer space activities.

"There is one great difference with the code of conduct [as opposed to previous frameworks]," said Asbeck. "It's a comprehensive approach and it has the objective to deal with all outer space activities conducted by states, and non-government activities, including civilian and military."

Difficult negotiations

Like previous agreements, the EU's code of conduct can only be morally binding.

"It would have the character of a political declaration by the signing states," said Asbeck.

But whether states sign or not is another question.

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations says China will be absent from the negotiations. China and India both feel they have been left out of consultations up until now.

"It has been made all the more difficult," said Zenko in an interview with DW, "by the Chinese being reluctant to express their motivations and intentions in space."

In addition, eleven countries and a number of private businesses say they have the infrastructure in place to launch new satellites.

"[Satellites] are very important for everything we do," said Zenko. "They are particularly important for anything related to GPS, if you try to pump gas at a gas station, if you try to use the internet, all sorts of internet communications bounce off satellites. But if you don't bring [all the parties] on board, and they create more space debris, that will make space unsustainable."

Clogged universe

The extra 'traffic' in outer space has meant an increase in waste or "space debris" left orbiting the Earth. It is proving to be the biggest threat to civil, military and commercially owned satellites still in operation.

"The amount of debris in space has almost doubled in the past five years," said Zenko, "[current estimates suggest] 22,000 pieces of debris bigger than 10 centimeters across are constantly orbiting the Earth's atmosphere.”

All this man made rubbish could remain in orbit for centuries, or come crashing down tomorrow.

Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA

Zenko says governments and business need to agree

"The problem is," said Zenko, "America can't clean up Russia's space debris - it belongs to Russia. What the Americans consider cleaning up, the Russians might consider an anti-satellite program."

US interests prevail

The United States has also said it wants more global cooperation in space, including joint war games, collaborative operations with allies, and data-sharing deals with France, Japan and other countries.

But it rejected an earlier draft of the EU proposals for a code of conduct.

Zenko says the Obama administration wants the EU to consider the interests of emerging space powers, in particular Brazil and India.

It is also thought US authorities are concerned that the EU code of conduct would restrict the American military's use of space for defense purposes.

"Modern armed forces increasingly rely on space," Lieutenant Colonel April Cunningham, a spokesperson for the US defense department, wrote in an email to DW. "The US must ensure that operations in other domains - land, sea, air - can be effectively enabled by space."

"The US is committed to ensuring that any international code advances national security, foreign policy, economic, scientific, and other interests of the United States, allies, and partners," said Cunningham.

The next round of talks for the EU's proposed code of conduct is set to take place in October at the United Nations in New York. It is hoped, says the EU's Frank Asbeck, that a workable conclusion can be reached by the second half of 2013. American interests are likely to influence the outcome.

Author: Jessie Wingard
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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