Commercial space travel: Increased potential for conflict in space

As of: 12/29/2021 5:17 p.m.

Space is getting tighter: More and more nations are launching commercial projects into space. This increases the risk of clashes and the potential for conflict. The previous rules are no longer sufficient.

By Arthur Landwehr, ARD-Studio Washington

“We have called on all nations to be responsible partners in space and to avoid anything that could endanger astronauts and cosmonauts.” The US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, did not want to say any more. China’s allegation is in the room that two satellites from the private company SpaceX have endangered their space station.

Arthur Landwehr
ARD-Studio Washington

It’s not that simple, says Henry Hertzfeld, professor of space law at George Washington University in Washington. Because if there had been a clash, the American government would be indebted. “In the end, the nations are responsible and liable under Article 6.”

An international agreement from 1972 is still valid in this case. And even if today the near-earth space is overcrowded with around 5000 active satellites and almost 20,000 pieces of scrap, the international space agreement of 1967 is essentially considered to be commercial space travel no speech was made yet.

There is a conflict over raw materials at hand

It is still working, maybe also because not much is regulated and many of the players want it that way and resolve conflicts quietly. But it won’t stay that way, says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s director of science. “There really aren’t many areas in which we stand in each other’s way. But the more we commercialize, the more we invest in space, the closer we get. That’s why it’s incredibly important that good rules of conduct are accepted, but so are laws . “

The Chinese complaint also appears to be a response to American complaints about China that crashed a launcher in an uncontrolled manner. And the public excitement about Russia, which produced dangerous scrap in a weapons test, is also part of politics.

The next conflict is already on the horizon when it comes to raw materials and other resources. Four nations have already announced that they will build lunar stations in the next few years. It is about rare earths, water resources or strategic positions for journeys into deep space. “Those who get there first have many advantages,” says Mehak Sarang, a space economist at MIT in Boston. “They create their own security areas, they mark the places they want, they get to the resources first.”

Laws so far only at national level

In this race, in which the USA, China, Russia and Japan are involved in the direction of the moon, international rules would set limits. However, it is feared that this hinders the commercial exploitation of these resources. That is why, according to Henry Hertzfeld, the United Nations is not making any progress with it. “The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has the issue of resources on the agenda, but they haven’t even set up a formal working group. They just exchange information.”

Some countries like Luxembourg, Japan or the USA have created their own laws for this. The US, for example, allows companies to exploit these resources, but the US as a country does not claim ownership of celestial bodies. “The law only applies to American individuals and companies,” says Hertzfeld. Others can proceed differently. And it is unclear whether, for example, claims can be staked on the moon and how they would be protected against others.

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