Low-Earth orbit (LEO) governance reform: challenges for the international community in designing a new sustainable near-Earth space governance model

By Elind Sulmina

With every new innovation comes new industries, new economies and new strategic challenges. The space economy is indeed considered to be the next trillion dollar industry (Morgan Stanley, 2020), thanks to its  indirect-related effect on every other Earth-based sector. More and more launch operators are now sending satellites to what Peoples and Stevens (2020) refers to the technosphere, i.e low-Earth orbit (LEO)  to enable the information society to function properly. In recent years, the gap between the per capita digital need and the satellite computing capacity has increased, the former rising exponentially, while the latter is struggling to keep pace. Rapid development of the IT sector, and, by logical extension, the development of the satellite industry, has only been possible thanks to the proliferation of space programs, both at the national level as well as at the private level (with the commercialization and privatization of the aerospace sector). 

From the existent literature in the realm of transnational relations, a gap emerges about the topic of global governance in LEO, underlying the lack of an effective and univocal global governance face to the liberalization wave that the aerospace industry has experienced in recent years.  Players over the last 50 years have searched to establish ‘governance without government’ of the outer space (Stuart, 2013, p. 1) through a set of regimes including: the Outer Space Treaty (1967); the Rescue and Return Agreement  (1968); the Space Liability Convention (1972); the Registration Convention (1974); the regime to govern geostationary satellite allocation; the regime to govern the International Space Station. These regimes were primarily elaborated under the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) which was officially set up in 1959 by the General Assembly. UNCOPUOS is a product of a state centric perspective on governance in the Outer Space, and its original mandate, international cooperation in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, reflects a Cold War Astropolitik’s approach and the need to moderate intense rivalries between that time’s superpowers.  However, nowadays, States are not anymore the only legitimate players, especially in outer space. Commercial entities and individuals are more and more involved as non-state actors pursuing coordination in outer space’s governance. This project intends to shed light on this side of the study of low-Earth orbit that remains mostly overlooked. 

Low-Earth orbit, a space between 500 km and 2,000 km above the earth surface, in terms of spatial geography is included into outer space. The outer space is “a neutral territory in which multiple actors have interests but none has exclusive rights or control and where normative discourses (and norms) of cooperation sit alongside self-interested state realpolitik,” (Stuart, 2013, p. 1). Therefore, the outer space is shaped as a ‘global common’ as defined by Vogler (1995, p. 2) a resource to which no single decision-making unit holds exclusive title and by Crowe (1969, p. 1103) an “environmental object” which should not be appropriated to any individual group. In this ‘global common’ international cooperation it is essential to avoid the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’. 

One of the critical issues related to LEO governance is related to the current  presence of about six thousand satellites, of these around 60 percent are defunct and are considered as space junk (World Economic Forum, 2020). Achieving a stable and effective monitoring and tracking of satellites is becoming essential nowadays as risk of collision in such a rapidly congested area is high and it is the main cause of space debris. One of the most notorious accidental incidents involved a defunct Russian satellite, Kosmos 2251, and Iridium, an American communications satellite in 2009 whose collision generated hundreds of pieces of large debris (White, 2014, p.3-4). Other collisions were barely avoided such as in January 2020, when the decommissioned Poppy VI-B military satellite from the late 1960s almost collided with another retired IRAS satellite (Graham, 2020). 

Currently the only way to reduce collisions is to use software to track trajectories in order to make corrections to the orbital path. Nowadays satellite operators use Space Traffic Management (STM) systems to avoid projected collision with other satellites and debris that already exist. STM softwares is based on a collection of data on orbits, operational satellites and debris (known as Space Situational Awareness, SSA) elaborated by a unit of the U.S. Department of Defence Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), the Joint Operations Center (JSpOC) which then elaborates orbits’ models and projections of potential collisions and close approaches. The US Department of Defence is authorized (10 U.S.C. §2274) to supply SSA information also to non U.S. government entities, i.e. U.S. and foreign commercial entities, in order to prevent collisions even when they do not involve US government satellites. 

This shows how critical it is to shape an international governance system in LEO in order to avoid possible fatal collisions which will be increasingly possible in the near future because of the increasing use of groups of smaller satellites. Traditionally,  satellites are most commonly used as single, autonomous and independent entities, kind of monolithic architecture. However, over the last twenty years this scenario has started to change. The presence of small satellite swarms is growing and their increasing use is posing new challenges. Satellite swarms are a small and coordinated unit composed of very small, nano satellites that will work together towards the same objective. One of the largest uses of these groups of nanosatellites is being made by companies seeking to bring wireless internet anywhere. Therefore numerous private entities are competing to launch them: SpaceX has already sent more than 480 out of 12,000 small satellites and is seeking permission to be able to launch 30,000 more. Blue Origin is planning to launch 3,236 nanosatellites while other players are preparing to follow this strategy (Ritchie & Seal, 2020). The pace of launching these satellite swarms both accelerate the congestion-effect in LEO. By increasing the likelihood of potential collision and consequently of accident debris generated by such events which, in turn, potentially could generate more damage to other spacecrafts, the satellite swarms per se will be a factor on its own on the precariousness of LEO governance. 

Therefore collisions are a  potential source of debris and, as mentioned before, space debris are consistently becoming a critical issue that near-Earth space is experiencing caused by the growing number of single satellites and swarm satellites in LEO. NASA reports that LEO’s environmental balance is at risk due to the rising number of artificial objects that are circulating at orbital velocity reaching almost 20,000 objects larger than 10 cm in diameter and around 500,000 between 1 and  10 cm and 128 million smaller than 1 square cm (among which we can count operating satellites, retired satellites, pieces of rocket equipment – such as rockets’ body stages, bolts, nuts and washers, etc.) (NASA, 2019 & Congressional Research Service, p. 15). Already in 1978 Kessler identified the issue of space debris related to collisions: every collision produces more debris whose growing amount could turn LEO in the next future into a cloud of debris  preventing any satellite operation in LEO. Peoples & Stevens underline that the Kessler Syndrome could likely become a reality in the next years due to the constant increase in the number of space debris capable of damaging orbital structures,  making prevention tools necessary, from the early identification of orbital debris to their actual removal. There is also the possibility of generating debris on purpose. As a matter of fact, in 2007, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) directed a Anti Satellite missile (ASAT) against one of its own defunct satellites, a collision which produced 35,000 debris smaller than 1 cm and 2,087 pieces of larger debris that will continue to remain in LEO for the coming decades. Kelso estimates this event generated a 20 percent increase of objects in Earth orbit and 37 percent increase in possible collisions (Kelso, 2007).
There is substantial literature devoted to the scientific aspects of LEO, with most of it  underlining the need to reduce the impact of the use of satellites in this region of space. There is not, however, a comprehensive study on how to implement this reduction through a comprehensive governance reform. The rising amounts of satellites, both in a monolithic classical architecture and in large numbers of nanosatellites,  is becoming a serious problem that should lead to a dramatic and unparalleled commitment to finding an effective environmental policy in order to avoid it becoming a global strategic issue. Once more, Peoples and Stevens demonstrate that both anthropogenic threats and “extinction events”, that could undermine the survival of the human species, are more and more linked to outer space-related hazards. 

A reformed GPPP of LEO would also grant developing countries access to LEO according to an equal- and distribution-system. To a certain extent, that is already the case with UNOOSA’s  KiboCUBE Programme which, in partnership with Japan, supports such independence. It is indeed the case of  Ghana, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mongolia, Bhoutan, Nepal, Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Paraguay (UNOOSA, 2019). It is, however, a program that shows its limits in terms of budget, the actual number of satellites that can be sent per country and per launch, and apparently the deficiency in its outreach, as many potential candidates are left out. This is may due to the fact that UNOOSA’s budget and structure are part of the entire office of the UN’s Secretary General. 

So far, academic research has not fully addressed the balance between sustainability in near-Earth space and long-term economic growth and equal access to space. By analogy, a great deal of literature has been carried out on other global commons’ governance such as the Arctic governance, demonstrating that multilateralism is the optimal approach to governing specific territories of interest to different governments. My research aims to bridge the gap between the already existing – but low-performing – global space governance and the current modern trends. The dawn of the liberalization of the telecommunications industry, and hence of the aerospace industry, is providing new business opportunities, particularly within the near-Earth space economy, but also generating sustainability issues. The current international space governance cannot be effective if space remains an arena for the current competition between national and international space institutions. It is important to avoid regulatory and operational multiplicity of the current space governance arrangements to create a sustainable environment in which space can become a strategic, economic and security platform for the entire globe.  


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