Access Alert: Takeaways from the 61st UN COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee

Access Alert: Takeaways from the 61st UN COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) serves as a crucial international forum for addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with space activities. With 102 Member States, this committee is one of the fastest-growing bodies in the UN ecosystem. This aligns with the ever-growing interest in the space sector from all parts of the world, with the total number of States with active satellites in orbit rising to over 90 in 2023.

Within the framework of COPUOS, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) plays a pivotal role in the technical aspects of space exploration, promoting sustainable practices and addressing emerging issues. The 61st session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee took place between 29 January and 9 February in Vienna. This UN COPUOS session was particularly important due to rising geopolitical uncertainties around the globe, as well as the ever-increasing proliferation of satellite launches.

UN COPUOS sessions are at the forefront of shaping international norms and strategies to ensure the responsible and peaceful utilisation of outer space, addressing issues ranging from space debris management to the impact of satellite constellations on astronomical observations. The outcomes of this session contributed to the trajectory of global space governance, emphasising the pressing need for cooperation and regulation in an era marked by increased space activities and their strategic implications.

General exchange of views

The general exchange of views focused heavily on aspects of space sustainability. The Group of 77 (G77) and China articulated a robust stance on building technological capacities, advocating for the transfer of technology, disaster prevention, and scientific research in developing countries.

Emphasising equitable access to space technology applications, the G77 urged states to strengthen international cooperation and resist unilateral economic measures hindering space access. The group also underscored the importance of North-South and South-South cooperation. Notably, concerns about mega-constellations and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) congestion took centre stage, with a call to address space debris through cooperation and access to monitoring technologies.

The African Group highlighted the steady growth in COPUOS membership but stressed the need for further expansion. In particular, it encouraged more African countries to join, especially keeping in mind the economic benefits that the continent could derive from the use of space applications.

Expressing concern over satellite mega-constellations contributing to space debris, the African Group urged major contributors to fulfil their historic responsibility under Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty for mitigation and responsible use of space. The group also lent its support for adding an item on Dark and Quiet Skies to the STSC agenda, foreseeing fruitful discussions on light pollution, constellation risks, and space debris.

Dark and quiet skies

The proposal for a Dark and Quiet Skies agenda item stood out as a significant outcome of the session. This proposal addressed the escalating challenges associated with the growing deployment of satellite constellations, raising concerns about their impact on astronomical observations, the scientific community, and the overall sustainability of space activities.

In response to the global surge in satellite launches and the subsequent proliferation of constellations, the Dark and Quiet Skies initiative aims to draw attention to the potential consequences of these activities. This term emphasises the imperative to mitigate the adverse effects of artificial light and radiofrequency interference generated by satellites, which can hinder astronomical observations and disrupt the natural darkness of the night sky.

In a positive development, the proposal for an agenda item on Dark and Quiet Skies was agreed by the STSC, marking an important step in acknowledging and actively attempting to address the implications of satellite constellations on astronomical observations. The acceptance of this agenda item in future COPUOS meetings from 2025-2029 reflects a commitment to shaping the future of space activities in a manner that respects both scientific exploration and the cultural and environmental value of unobstructed skies.

Space debris

A longstanding item in the area of space sustainability, the issues created by an increasing amount of space debris featured heavily during the debate. Canada sounded the alarm on the urgency of addressing space debris, advocating for a comprehensive, multilateral approach and emphasising its active role in supporting multilateral initiatives.

The United States stressed the paramount importance of orbital debris mitigation, calling for global adherence to United Nations Long-Term Sustainability (LTS) Guidelines. The Russian Federation, among others, voiced widespread concern and proposed evolving guidelines, advocating for a legal definition and underlining its commitment to international collaboration.

China showcased advancements in space debris monitoring, including improved observation success rates and data processing accuracy. The United Kingdom emerged as a leader in space debris management, highlighting over 100 issued orbital licences and plans for active debris removal, with a range of private companies being involved in these activities. Japan reiterated its commitment to space safety, supporting global cooperation and emphasising technological solutions – particularly the role of private industry.

In summary, the session provided a comprehensive exploration of space debris-related challenges, revealing diverse national perspectives and commitments that will contribute to ongoing efforts to ensure a secure and sustainable future.

There is a clear global consensus on the necessity to mitigate the creation of additional debris in space, including adherence to the UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. Moreover, consideration must be given to actively removing existing debris that poses threats to other spacecraft. However, more efforts are required to determine the most effective path forward, especially concerning the nature of the obligation on states to explore space sustainably.

What happens next?

Looking ahead, the focus on addressing space-related challenges continues at the upcoming 63rd Legal Subcommittee at COPUOS, which takes place from 15-26 April in Vienna. This meeting will delve into the governance aspects of the challenges discussed during the 61st STSC Session, providing a platform for in-depth discussions on legal frameworks, regulations, and international cooperation. The gathering will also further COPUOS’s discussion of other items, including the use of space resources.

As the global community grapples with issues ranging from space debris management to sustainable space activities, the Legal Subcommittee will play a pivotal role in shaping the legal landscape that guides these endeavours. Stakeholders anticipate robust debates and collaborative efforts to formulate effective and equitable governance mechanisms for the increasingly complex and interconnected realm of outer space.

If you would like to learn more about UN COPUOS, its Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, its Legal Subcommittee, or the activities of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, as well as the implications the work of these bodies has on your market and business, please contact Hamza Hameed at [email protected] and Declan Dundas at [email protected].

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