Expert panel shines light on key space safety and security issues

The Institute for Security Science and Technology recently ran an online briefing event with Imperial SpaceLab and ISPL around space safety and security.

The discussion highlighted the complexity of issues around space commercialisation and governance, and touched on international relations, politics and science.

We posed a few questions to three members of the expert panel to share their thoughts on some of the main discussion threads which came up.

The panel included Dr Jonathan Eastwood (Imperial College London), Nick Howes (BMT) and Rich Laing (Nato Communications and Information Agency).

 

Dr Jonathan Eastwood, Senior Lecturer and Director of Imperial SpaceLab

“The area of space safety and security cuts across an enormous variety of sectors and interests. There is a real need for everyone to work together, and to bring different entities and institutions to the table so that the best solutions can be found.”

 

How important do you see national risk registers in driving policy around space safety and security?

The National Risk Register plays a really important role in crystallising understanding of different potential threats, and providing a central statement of the need to address them. In the case of space weather for example, its introduction into the Register was of key importance because it galvanised a number of separate communities to come together to address the problem. As a result, the UK is arguably world-leading in a number of areas relating to space weather preparedness, and is much more joined up (particularly between academia, industry and government) than it otherwise would have been.

What do you think the key developing issues policy makers should have in their minds regarding space safety and security, for informing their jobs?

On one level, I think it’s very important that policy in this area is evidence-based, and also scientifically based: operations in space are subject to the laws of physics! This means a good understanding of the physical environment, its properties, and then how human and robotic activities are affected are all crucial. At a second level, from my own research area it’s important to recognise that space isn’t ‘empty’, and that there are all sorts of effects – space weather – that can affect our modern technological society both in space and on the ground.

What do you see as the role of academia in helping to develop the UK’s space safety and security capabilities?

The area of space safety and security cuts across an enormous variety of sectors and interests. There is a real need for everyone to work together, and to bring different entities and institutions to the table so that the best solutions can be found. I hope that the academic sector can facilitate this, particularly in providing objective, evidence-based input to the formulation of space policy and law. Academia also has a key role to play in helping policy makers, who may not have a technical background, to understand these issues.

 

Nick Howes, Lead R&D Space Systems, BMT

“The threat to our defence and critical national and international infrastructure from a Kessler scale event, cannot be overstated.”

 

Are we doomed to repeat the same dynamics in international governance of space as we have with land and s

The key issue is that the mega constellations appear to be launching with almost impunity. Licences from the FCC being almost granted like water. The threat to our defence and critical national and international infrastructure from a Kessler scale event, cannot be overstated. Therefore, it appears we are, and the United Nations really need to step in, before it is too late.

How do mega-constellations impact planetary defence surveys and other issues of global collaboration?

Wide field telescope surveys from the like of LSST and the large binocular survey rely on their ability using automated data reduction pipelines to observe and track comets and asteroids for both science, and as potential threats. Putting upwards of 50,000 satellites in the way, even at magnitude 8 (these scopes can hit magnitude 24 easily), will make that job more difficult. The impact on radio astronomy will be nothing short of catastrophic

Are there any specific issues of space related safety and security regarding Brexit?

The major issue with Brexit is the isolation of the UK, and the brain drain in academia and science we are already seeing.

What do you see as the role of academia and industry in helping to develop the UK’s space safety/security capabilities?

Academia and industry need to ensure that the future for scientific exploration is there. Teams like the SSLC have been attempting to assist and inform government with respect to the regulations. We can only hope they listen

 

Richard Laing, Senior Scientist, Nato Communications and Information Agency

“Current structures for governance are predominantly based upon Westphalian concepts of state, and would need to adapt to embrace multinationals and commercial entities [in space].”

 

Are we doomed to repeat the same dynamics in international governance of space as we have with land and sea?

The potential of space means that nations, multinationals and the commercial sector have a keen interest in operating within the global commons of space.  As these interested parties have self-interests that are inevitably going to conflict, the need for accepted norms of behaviour is key, and establishing a form of governance will have to be closely associated.  Agreeing the behaviours for a “responsible actor” in space, will also inevitably need some form of mechanism for cautioning and “punishing” those who break those behaviours.

Current structures for governance are predominantly based upon Westphalian concepts of state, and would need to adapt to embrace multinationals and commercial entities.  Without an effective method for establishing norms of behaviour and governing activity, the first mover advantage will lie with those prepared to take the highest risk (physical, political, or reputational) at the expense of other actors.

What do you think the key developing issues policy makers should have in their minds regarding space safety and  security, for informing their jobs?

An effective understanding of threat needs to embrace threats from all angles; natural, nefarious and accidental. To achieve this understanding of the environment, the need to share data and work in collaboration with other actors is key, linking to the previous point on the need for a structure to establish behaviours and offer a communication forum.

The potential for accidental or irresponsible actions to be misconstrued as nefarious could lead to strategic repercussions; safety and security in space is based on an understanding of the operational environment, and the motivations of other space actors.  Grey Zone activity, that level of conflict that exists between war and peace and has become increasingly predominant, will inevitably reach into space; understanding where and when this may happen is vital for attributing blame for safety/security events.

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