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State Department: Laying the Groundwork for a Stable and Sustainable Space Environment

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Source – U.S. State Department:

Laying the Groundwork for a Stable and Sustainable Space Environment

Frank A. Rose
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Space Security Conference
Geneva, Switzerland
March 29, 2012

Thank you for the kind introduction. It is my pleasure to be back in Geneva, speaking at what has become one of my favorite conferences to discuss space security. This year’s theme, “Laying the Groundwork for Progress,” seems to me to be particularly fitting when we consider the efforts that have been, and will be, underway this year to ensure the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment.

Before I discuss the approaches towards ensuring space security that we can and are taking today, I’d like to look at how we are using space today and consider the consequences of a future without access to space. Today, several nations use communications satellites to enable health services for remote segments of their populations. Dubbed “telehealth,” the satellite link provides patients with access to the medical knowledge and experience necessary to diagnose conditions and prescribe treatment. For example, Burkina Faso, one of several West African nations using telehealth, relies upon donated transponder time to transmit abnormal ultrasound images from village clinics to specialists in a few regional hospitals. Communication satellites have a direct impact on Burkina Faso’s women and children, and the loss of this service could greatly affect the country’s ability to meet its health care delivery needs.

The use of communications satellites to transmit health care data across countries and across the globe is only one of the many uses of space on which we rely. Telephone calls, news reports, television broadcasts, and financial transactions are also relayed through satellites. Financial markets, power grids, and wireless, satellite, cable, and broadcast industries all use GPS satellites for precise timing, and ships, planes, automobiles, and individual people use them for navigation. Meteorological satellites provide weather and environmental forecasts, while remote-sensing satellites provide imagery used in agriculture, resource exploration, land use planning, treaty verification, and disaster relief, amongst other things. Clearly the use of space assets and the information we derive from them permeate almost every aspect of our daily lives. The telehealth scenario I have just mentioned is only one example of how important the utilization of space is, and clearly shows that the loss of space systems, even for a short period of time, can have damaging consequences. Extrapolating from this, we must ask ourselves “What will the consequences be if the space environment were to become unusable?”

Recognizing the need to prevent such a future, and to ensure the long-term sustainability and stability of the space environment, the question becomes “What can we do today to ensure that the generations that come after us can access and benefit from space?” I’m sure that each speaker on this panel, and probably in this conference, would answer this question slightly, if not very, differently. Some of us would suggest we pursue legally-binding arms control agreements. While the United States is prepared to engage in substantive discussions on space security as part of a Conference on Disarmament’s consensus program of work, and is willing to “consider” space arms control proposals and concepts that are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and our allies, we have not yet seen a proposal that meets these criteria. However, it is important to focus on those areas that unite us rather than divide us. While each speaker may have differing views on how to best ensure stability and security in space, there are many ways forward in which we do agree. It is in those areas, I believe, we should focus on making progress in the near term.

Orbital Debris Mitigation

Considering the serious and long-lasting threat posed by orbital debris, I think we can all agree that cooperation is necessary to address and mitigate this growing problem. The fact was illustrated by events this past weekend, when the astronauts on the International Space Station were forced to take shelter when a piece of debris came close to the station. Had that debris collided with the space station, it could have caused catastrophic damage to the station and placed the lives of the crew at serious risk.

In 2002, international guidelines to minimize debris were established by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. These guidelines served as the basis for similar guidelines then adopted by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. It is important that we continue to make progress in encouraging nations to adopt and implement these guidelines.

From a national perspective, we in the United States also recognize the importance of preventing collisions between satellites and/or orbiting objects, due to the resulting debris creation. The United States is currently reaching out to all space-faring nations and organizations to ensure that our Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC, has current contact information for both government and private sector satellite operations centers to provide notifications of potentially hazardous conjunctions. In 2011 alone, we provided over 1,100 notifications to nations around the world, including Russia and China.


We can also all agree that there is great value in efforts to adopt best practice guidelines through “bottom-up” initiatives developed by government and private sector satellite operators, such as the work done in the multi-year study of “long-term sustainability of space activities” within the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) of UNCOPUOS. The STSC Working Group on the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities is a key forum focusing on the international development of “best practices guidelines” for space activities, in particular in the areas of space debris, space operations, and space situational awareness. The United States believes that many of the best practice guidelines addressed by this working group will be integral to international efforts to enhance spaceflight safety and to preserve the use of space for the long-term.

Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures

Finally, we can all agree that the development of near-term, voluntary, and pragmatic space transparency and confidence-building measures can enhance the stability and security of the space environment. TCBMs, whether they address important areas such as hazards to spaceflight safety and collision avoidance, or reduce tensions through the sharing of information, help to increase familiarity and trust and encourage openness among space actors. One opportunity for the international community to cooperate in this area is through the Group of Government Experts (or GGE) on Outer Space TCBMs, established by UN General Assembly Resolution 65/68. We look forward to working with our international colleagues this year in a GGE that serves as a constructive mechanism to examine voluntary and pragmatic TCBMs that have the potential to mitigate the dangers and risks in an increasingly contested and congested space environment, enhance stability and security, and promote responsible operations in space.

Another opportunity for the international community to cooperate on TCBMs is through the development and adoption of an “International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.” As many of you are aware, on January 17, 2012, the United States announced that it had decided to join with the European Union and other spacefaring nations to develop an International Code of Conduct.

In her written statement announcing the decision, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “the long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors … Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.”

We were pleased that Japan, Australia, and other countries have also stated their support for the development of a Code of Conduct, and we encourage other spacefaring nations to consider playing an active role in the multilateral meetings of experts in 2012 that the European Union intends to schedule. We view the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct as a good foundation for developing a non-legally binding International Code focused on the use of voluntary and pragmatic TCBMs. An International Code of Conduct, if adopted, would establish a political commitment to reduce the hazards of accidental and purposeful debris-generating events and would increase the transparency of operations in space to minimize the danger of collisions, furthering cooperation in areas we all recognize as crucial for ensuring stability and sustainability in space. We look forward to engaging with the rest of the international community on this initiative in the months to come.

Looking Towards the Future

The world is increasingly interconnected through, and increasingly dependent on space systems. While there is no way of knowing when, or if, we will reach a “tipping point” when it comes to debris and our access to space, it is clear that the long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors. Because of our disparate histories and situations, there will always be differing views on how to best ensure stability and sustainability in space. We should not focus on what divides us, but instead on those efforts we can agree to now that will lay the groundwork for progress and sustain space for future generations.