Space: A major legal void

WASHINGTON (AFP) -The Internet of space is here.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted this week using a connection provided by the first satellites in his high-speed Starlink constellation, which one day could include… 42,000 mini-satellites.

The idea of putting tens of thousands more satellites into orbit, as compared with the roughly 2,000 that are currently active around the Earth, highlights the fact that space is a legal twilight zone.

Experts debated the subject at length this week in Washington at the 70th International Astronautical Conference.

The treaties that have governed space up until now were written at a time when only a few nations were sending civilian and military satellites into orbit.

Today, any university could decide to launch a mini-satellite. That could yield a legal morass.

Roughly 20,000 objects in space are now big enough – the size of a fist or about four inches – to be catalogued. That list includes everything from upper stages and out-of-service satellites to space junk and the relatively small number of active satellites.

A disused satellite at an altitude of 1,000 kilometre will eventually fall back into the atmosphere, but only after about 1,000 years, according to French expert Christophe Bonnal.

Bonnal, who chairs the International Astronautical Federation’s committee on space debris, explains that during those years, the object – travelling 30,000 kilometres an hour – could end up colliding with a live satellite and killing it.

For now, that possibility is rare – as an example, Bonnal said there are only 15 objects bigger than a fist above France at any given time.

“Space is infinitely empty – this is not like maritime pollution,” he told AFP.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of France’s space agency and the outgoing IAF president, also downplayed the issue.

“There are practically no examples of satellite problems caused by space debris,” Le Gall told AFP.

“But this is starting to be a more urgent concern because of the (satellite) constellation projects. It’s clear that even if we only had to think about SpaceX’s constellation, the issue would need to be addressed.”

For Le Gall, Musk’s company “isn’t doing anything against the rules. The problem is that there are no rules. There are air traffic controllers for planes. We will end up with something similar”.

Jan Woerner, the director general of the European Space Agency, admitted “The best situation would be to have international law… but if you ask for that, it will take decades.”

So far, only France has stipulated in its own laws that any satellite in low orbit must be removed from orbit in 25 years.