As more nations and corporations acquire space-going capabilities, there is a need for updating the international norms for the exploration and commercial exploitation of space.
The US’ Artemis Accords, which 12 nations have signed so far, is a new initiative. India, China, and Russia
— the three space
powers — are not among the signatories. The Accords, which were released in October 2020, are bilateral agreements. They expand the framework of the Outer Space
Treaty (OST1967) and the Registration Convention (RC1976), which were adopted by the UN General Assembly.
But while adhering to the OST1967’s principles of peaceful exploration and no territorial claims, the Accords call for tighter registration of space objects, better handling of debris, avoidance of biological contamination and littering, sharing scientific knowledge, and creating interoperable standards. They also touch on mining.
Signatories may participate in NASA’s Artemis Mission, which targets a manned Moon mission
by 2024. That makes signatories, and corporations in the signatory nations, part of an international aerospace supply chain and it yields access to the science and technology Artemis will inevitably develop. This is a big carrot: NASA
missions generate enormous intellectual property and many scientific discoveries. In 1967, only two nations — the US and the USSR — had space-going capabilities. Now, China, India, Japan, and the European Union (and France on its own) have demonstrated capacities. The UAE is developing a space profile in cooperation with Japan. There are at least 2,500 working satellites
and 30,000 pieces of large space debris (including defunct satellites) in orbit. The Registration Convention, 1976, needs upgrades to record the orbits of these objects and of future satellites.
The Accords also suggest a cooperative effort to clean up the debris. In addition to its Moon and Mars missions, China
is putting up a space station, and Russia-China
are cooperating in planning a moon-base. The robotic exploration of asteroids and comets continues, in addition to ongoing and planned missions to Mars, Venus, and the Moon.
Potential areas of contention will inevitably increase. Apart from territorial claims, space mining holds promise since metals, gases, and ores, which are scarce on Earth, may be abundant. The Accords imply private sector mining can occur, while mentioning a need for an internationally acceptable framework. Current commercial uses of space include a huge swathe of services ranging from communications to weather prediction, to geo-locational services. Private corporations are marketing “zero-gravity” tourism. Blue Origin received a $28-million bid for a seat on a scheduled July 20 flight, which will carry its chief executive officer, Jeff Bezos. Even more ambitiously, SpaceX wants to put a permanent colony on Mars.
The military uses of space are as far-reaching. Launching observational satellites
and deploying futuristic lasers to destroy satellites and missiles are part and parcel of this. The Accords ask signatories to desist from irresponsible acts like destroying satellites (as India and China
have done) and creating debris, or allowing rockets to fall uncontrolled back to Earth as China recently did. Geopolitics could also spill over. Russia
is threatening to pull out of the International Space Station due to sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has strong ties with Russia, and with Ukraine, and it has also worked with NASA.
Signing the Accords would be in line with recent policy changes to allow India’s private sector into space. It could provide an enormous boost to India’s aerospace capabilities as well as potential revenue streams.
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