Nations that damage satellites are ripe for legal challenge under the 1972 Liability Convention to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested on Sept. 22.
In a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation discussion with Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force (USSF), Bridenstine, a former Republican representative from Oklahoma and a retired U.S. Navy pilot, said that both NASA and USSF are “very committed to adhering to the principles of the Outer Space Treaty.”
“When you think about the Liability Convention of the Outer Space Treaty, it’s really been tested once,” Bridenstine said. “There was a satellite that re-entered and hit Canada, and there were some damages paid from one country to the other, and that was decades and decades ago. Today, we’re seeing satellites break apart, and things get jammed. The question is, ‘Can we test the Liability Convention in a more robust way?’ because the Outer Space Treaty is not just for fun and games. It’s intended to actually modify behavior in space, and, if we’re not testing the Liability Convention, then it’s really not worth the paper that it’s written on so I think we need to be more forward leaning on ensuring the Outer Space Treaty is adhered to.”
In the only claim under the Liability Convention, the Soviet Union paid Canada some $2 million after the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear-powered Kosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite crashed in western Canada and scattered radioactive debris on Jan. 24, 1978.
Bridentstine and Raymond, who signed a Sept. 21 memorandum of understanding on future research cooperation between NASA and USSF, stressed the development of civil and military norms of behavior for space and a possible international code of conduct for space to build on the requirements of the OST, the Liability Convention, and the 1976 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
“From my perspective, if you look at what’s in the Outer Space Treaty, it’s not all that limiting,” Raymond said during the Aerospace Nation forum. “It says you won’t put a nuclear weapon in space, and you won’t use the moon and other celestial bodies for military operations. Short of that, it’s the wild, Wild West. I do believe there is common interest between NASA and the Space Force to develop norms of behavior.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned in a “Challenges to Security in Space” report last year that Russia and China are developing a number of counterspace systems, including directed energy and cyber weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based antisatellite missiles.
110 nations, including the U.S., China, Russia, and North Korea, are parties to the Outer Space Treaty.
“While China and Russia are developing counterspace weapons systems, they are promoting agreements at the United Nations that limit weaponization of space,” DIA said in its report last year. “Their proposals do not address many space warfare capabilities, and they lack verification mechanisms, which provides room for China and Russia to continue to develop counterspace weapons.”
While the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has called for international agreements to protect satellites and the outer space environment, the group has said that last December’s creation of USSF was “a very bad idea.”
“At best a space force is a distraction from what is necessary to ensure space security in the face of rapid technological and geopolitical changes,” Laura Grego, a physicist and senior scientist in the Global Security Program at UCS, has said. “At worst, it would prompt a space arms race that would threaten U.S. military and civilian satellites, not protect them. Diplomacy, not bureaucratic reorganization, is urgently needed.”
“The Pentagon insists that keeping space predictable and safe is the core purpose of whatever reorganization they do,” she said. “To be sure, that mission is important and stabilizing, but it doesn’t need a new military service. Creating a new military service focused on space will create bureaucratic incentives to hype the space weapons threat and build new weapons. Pentagon officials emphasize that Russia and China are developing anti-satellite technology, but they leave out the fact that the United States is far ahead in sophistication as well as capacity of such technology.”