Insight - Review of 2021 and Preview of 2022

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

By Executive Director Peter Martinez

As we approach the end of 2021, we reflect on what a remarkable year this has been for the world in general and for the space community in particular. Despite all the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic, we witnessed a number of momentous developments in the space arena, heralding continued growth of commercial space activities. The deployment of very large satellite constellations has continued unabated during COVID, accounting for the lion’s share of the more than 1,600 new satellites launched during the first eleven months of 2021. These constellations hold out the hope of enhancing global internet access, but they also raise a number of  questions and concerns for the long-term sustainability of space activities that remain unresolved. 

During 2021, we witnessed the first impressive on-orbit demonstrations of commercial capabilities for mission extension in GEO and close-proximity operations in LEO that are foundational for the development of commercial on-orbit servicing and debris removal services that will also form part of future technical and operational measures to support space sustainability. We also witnessed the first operational flights in the suborbital tourism industry and the first private vehicle to fly orbital tourists. While these impressive technical accomplishments have been praised by many in the space community, we also need to acknowledge that the non-space public has not universally perceived all of these developments in a positive light. This trepidation indicates that we in the space community have a collective responsibility to do a better job of informing the general public of the many societal benefits of space activities, and that space domain, like the terrestrial, maritime and air domains, supports a myriad of activities that contribute to human prosperity and security on Earth. 

Against this backdrop, Secure World Foundation continued to serve as a trusted convener of essential multi-stakeholder dialogues in the various issue areas in which we work. Because of ongoing precautionary measures against the spread of COVID, almost all of the dialogues convened during the year have been virtual events. These included dialogues that raised the salience of space sustainability issues among national and multilateral decision-makers, key among which was the third Summit for Space Sustainabilityin June 2021. 

Secure World Foundation supported the development of space governance by building capacity for regulation in emerging space nations, and we continued to produce resources such as the SWF Handbook for New Actors in Space and the SWF Assessment of Global Counterspace Capabilities. During the year, we finalized translations of the Handbook into Chinese and French, to join the existing English and Spanish editions. To make our Counterspace Assessment more accessible to non-English speaking audiences, we published the executive summary in Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish. 

During the year, we witnessed progress in the cooperative governance of space activities on a global scale. In August, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space reached agreement on the way forward for the second phase of the discussions on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, and in November the UN First Committee adopted a resolution to take forward the international discussion on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors. SWF looks forward to supporting these important and timely multilateral discussions in 2022 and beyond. 

For more than two decades, responsible space actors from around the world have been taking collective action to minimize the creation of space debris through design and operational measures. The cumulative effects of these actions on the part of many individual actors take years to manifest in the evolution of the debris population, but they can be nullified in an instant through a debris-producing event, such as an accidental on-orbit collision – or a deliberate debris-producing  antisatellite test. For this reason, the international space community was stunned by the destructive anti-satellite test carried out by the Russian Federation on November 15. The total amount of orbital debris from that test is still being catalogued, but it will pose a long-term hazard  to the International Space Station, the Chinese Space Station, and many other satellites in low Earth orbit. This was the latest in a series of such tests carried out over the past fifty years by the United States, Russia, China and India. Given that the space environment is now much more crowded than it was even a few years ago, the deliberate creation of space debris with such tests now poses a greater risk to the spaceflight safety and operations of many more space actors and jeopardizes the continuity of space-derived data and services that billions of people rely on. To put it simply – continuing to blow up stuff in space is a really bad idea! This is why Secure World Foundation was among the first of many civil society organizations to condemn this latest ASAT test as an irresponsible action and to call for the major space powers to agree on a moratorium on kinetic anti-satellite tests in orbit. 

Looking forward, what are SWF’s plans for 2022? 

Looking forward, in 2022 the space community will continue to experience the multifaceted challenges to the sustainability of space activities that have been growing for a number of years, as well as confronting more novel challenges that may arise from new kinds of space activities such as megaconstellations and the worrying proliferation of counterspace activities. In our efforts to promote the sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space, Secure World Foundation will continue to engage with other actors in the United States and internationally on issues affecting the safety, stability, security, and sustainability of outer space activities. 

In 2022, SWF will continue to work with partners around the world to develop and promote cooperative solutions for space sustainability. Our work will focus on the following four thematic areas: 

1. Cooperative governance of space activities

SWF will contribute to the development and implementation of effective and inclusive governance mechanisms that move the world progressively toward the sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space. 

2. Peace, stability and safety in outer space

SWF will contribute to improving space security and maintaining space as an operationally safe, predictable and stable domain through promoting inclusive, informed dialogue and greater transparency among space actors and through promoting policies and behaviors that enhance peace, stability, and safety.

3. Sustainable and prosperous uses of outer space

SWF will contribute to the development, promotion and implementation of operational practices and policies that support the responsible, prosperous, and sustainable uses of outer space that benefit Earth and all its peoples.

4. Space activities in support of human and environmental security on Earth

SWF will contribute to the development of policies and practices aiming at more widespread and effective use of space assets and data to support improved human and environmental security.

In anticipation of a gradual return to in-person events in 2022, we are looking forward to hosting the fourth annual SWF Summit for Space Sustainability as an in-person event. An announcement will be made early in the new year.

SWF thanks its partners for a productive 2021, and looks forward to continuing conversations (virtually and in-person) in 2022 leading to the sustainable, safe, and peaceful long-term use of outer space, and to improved human and environmental security on Earth.

Last updated on December 16, 2021