Space transport is possible

Space law"Satellite swarms are not a minor threat"

Uli Blumenthal: The US company SpaceX wants to launch a total of over 10,000 satellites in the "Starlink" project over the next few years and thus supply the earth with high-speed Internet. But even after the first launch of 60 satellites at the end of May 2019, there was great excitement: The satellites shine brightly in the night sky when they are illuminated by the sun. OneWeb also wants to launch 2,000 mini satellites for Internet coverage in remote areas. Astronomers therefore fear that there will soon be no starry sky, but only a satellite sky, and that, according to the International Astronomical Union, it will become more and more difficult to do astronomy from Earth. SpaceX has now positioned 180 "Starlink" satellites in orbits around the earth. Can any commercial company just launch satellites into orbit? What regulations are there in space law? I asked Professor Stephan Hobe this question. He is director of the Institute for Air Law, Space Law and Cyber ​​Law at the University of Cologne and currently works in Cambridge, Great Britain.

Stephan Hobe: In other words, space law regulates that every satellite that is considered a so-called space object must be registered in a national register. But what must be in it is largely left open. At the time, the states could not really agree on this. This information must also be forwarded to the Secretary General of the United Nations - that is the office in Vienna - so that what is there in space can be tracked, but this information is so general that not everything can really be understood from it. In addition, a private company has to meet certain requirements, but that depends very much on the starting state, how strict it wants to set these requirements.

Space law a "relatively lax" compromise

Blumenthal: And how wide and how wide is the gap between the space nations and the legislative regulations that are issued by the countries? Everything is then apparently possible.

Hobe: Everything is possible there. We have the idea that international law, i.e. intergovernmental law, which has determined space and human activities in space and on celestial bodies from the outset, that this law sets standards. That is also true in principle, but this law as international law must always be a compromise between all states. In this respect, this compromise has usually turned out to be relatively slack. The requirements are not particularly strong. For example, Article 6 of the space treaty only says for every private starter that the relevant state must authorize him, must grant him a permit, but does not, so to speak, stipulate the conditions under which this permit can be granted. So that can in fact vary a lot. Just as space travel is now being commercialized more, so to speak, it is of course to be feared that safety standards will fall by the wayside and that one wants quick commercial success, so to speak, and that approvals are granted to private companies, even if the last security concerns have not been resolved.

Blumenthal: We have already heard from you how low the requirements for private space companies are. Are there specifications, for example, what regulates the orbit data, the design of the satellites, the control up to failure or even disposal of the satellites?

Hobe: Only in the beginning, because the registration requirements are extremely low, as I said at the beginning. Now, however, a number of collisions have already occurred in space, especially in the attractive orbits of the earth, so that the space agencies have agreed on legally non-binding rules of conduct for around 20 years. Among other things, it says that shortly before the end of the satellite drive, the satellite should be catapulted into a safe, cemetery orbit or directly back into the earth's atmosphere. But there are other things that are extremely problematic. This is about the willful destruction of satellites, which is still permitted, in relation to the question of their military use, so-called anti-satellite weapons. For the first time, it is also stated in these guidelines that something like this should be avoided as far as possible, because of course this corresponding destruction of satellites generates a myriad of small particles - we speak of space debris - which causes the corresponding orbits in a downright worrying way Way dirty.

"We have to get stronger registration"

Blumenthal: At the beginning of September, the Earth observation satellite Aeolus had to ignite its engines, change its orbit, otherwise there would have been a collision with a SpaceEx satellite. Are there any forms of traffic rules in space, according to the motto right before left or higher and lower traffic routes and railways?

Hobe: Would be nice. That is in fact our great demand, the demand of science, the demand not only of jurisprudence but also of physicists, that we finally get to it, with an increasingly larger population of space, for example through commercial satellites, possibly through space transport later on of people and cargo through space, that we come to actual rules for these cases, that we come to stronger registration, that precise orbit data are given and that it is also more precisely stated at what point in time a cargo goes into space and out again it emerges from space that the orbit is known relatively precisely in order to avoid collisions. All of this is urgently needed and will certainly have to concern us in the future.

Blumenthal: And who is actually the body before which such questions have to be settled? SpaceX, for example, received approval for the launch from the Federal Communications Commission in the USA. So what does it look like internationally? Who can wear that hat?

Hobe: Internationally, it is still the United Nations that since the beginning of space travel in the late 1950s, after Sputnik 1, has taken the initiative and founded a special committee, a committee that works with the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Space Committee the United Nations, which accordingly tries to tackle the problems with two sub-committees, a scientific-technical and a legal sub-committee. Now the big problem we have is that we have not seen a binding legal instrument emerge from this committee for about 40 years, but rather states that are below the threshold of binding can only commit themselves to so-called legally non-binding resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations want to agree on it, but refrain from creating any binding law after the five important international treaties that exist, with the space treaty of 1967 at the top.

Need "rules of conduct in the form of appropriate guidelines"

Blumenthal: The astronomers criticize that at some point more satellites than stars could be seen in the night sky. What can scientists do about the flood of these Starling and OneWeb satellites?

Hobe: Comparatively little at the moment. That sounds bitter, but it is probably also here as it is on earth. Something has to happen before something happens, something sensible regulatory happens. These swarms of satellites that you mentioned at the beginning are also no small threat. They are all comparatively quickly built, easily built satellites in large numbers with a high probability of collision. This is denied, but it is obvious that it has to be that way. It is actually foreseeable that the pollution of the major major orbits of the earth will not reduce the risk of such pollution. On the contrary. In my opinion, corresponding supplementary rules of conduct for the existing space law are needed in order to be able to cope with the problem to some extent by means of a sensible registration of these swarm constellations.

Blumenthal: SpaceX and OneWeb create facts with the satellites. Do you think the regulatory environment can catch up with this lead?

Hobe: It is to be feared that we are already a little late. Indeed, it is with great horror that we see that facts are actually being created. We see that in other areas too, when it comes to extracting resources from celestial bodies, for example, the United States is also very committed to creating its own regulatory facts of a national nature, but it is not too late. If the danger is recognized, it should be possible, if not hard law, but at least behavioral measures in the form of appropriate guidelines, with reasonably good will, provided that it is.

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