Insight - A retrospective look at 2022

Friday, December 16, 2022

As we approach the end of 2022, we look back on a year of news headlines that have shown us the most inspiring and also the most destructive sides of humanity.  This year has reminded us just how fragile peace is, and how terrible a world without peace can be.  Let me hasten to add here that peace is not just the absence of conflict, but that it also goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to justice and the resolution of discord by peaceful means. These notions of peace and justice may sound very far removed from what space is all about, but in fact they lie at the heart of addressing the many governance challenges posed by our activities in space, which is a shared domain that is becoming increasingly congested with operational satellites, contaminated by space debris, and contested by rival state and commercial actors.  Secure World Foundation’s vision is the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space contributing to global stability and benefits on Earth. 

Despite the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the long shadow cast over the world by the continued Russian invasion of Ukraine, the space arena has witnessed yet another year of record-breaking growth this year. As of the end of November, there were 162 successful launches (up from 135 for 2021) that lofted over 2300 satellites into space.  Investment in space companies during 2022 has been lower than 2021, but it is still high in comparison with historical levels.  So, how do we ensure that the space systems and activities resulting from those investments will deliver benefits to all the people on Earth while not degrading the space environment for future generations? This question is what drives our mission at Secure World Foundation.  We work with governments, industry, international organizations, and civil society to develop and promote ideas and actions to achieve the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space benefiting Earth and all its peoples.

From its inception, Secure World Foundation has endeavored to be a convener of multistakeholder dialogues to establish the secure and sustainable use of the space domain for the benefit of all nations. Even during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic during the past two years, we endeavored to support multi-stakeholder interactions and multilateral dialogues on space security and space sustainability.

During 2022, Secure World Foundation continued to support the development of space governance by building capacity for regulation in emerging space nations in partnership with the United Nations, and we continued to produce resources such as the SWF Handbook for New Actors in Space and  SWF’s Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment. To make our Counterspace Assessment more accessible to non-English-speaking audiences, we published the executive summary in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish. We also launched a new occasional podcast series titled Conversations on Investing and Space Sustainability.

Our flagship convening event for 2022 was the SWF Summit for Space Sustainability, which was held in London, UK, in June in partnership with the UK Space Agency. Organized from the outset to allow for remote participation, this hybrid event attracted 617 participants, of which 399 attended in person in London and a further 218 attended online from all around the world. The delegates included many senior leaders from government, industry, civil society organizations, and academia, as well as many young professionals who are just starting their space careers. The two-day program discussed the general topic of space sustainability from many different angles not normally covered in a single event. 

Looking at the space environment, the steadily increasing debris population in orbit continues to be a cause for alarm, especially given the exponential growth in the number of active satellites introduced into space each year, with tens of thousands of new satellites forecast to be launched over the coming decade.  For the past 20 years or more, 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.  There’s only so much (and in some cases, nothing) that can be done to avoid collisions of space objects, but deliberate debris creation through antisatellite testing is entirely avoidable.

For this reason, Secure World Foundation was among the first of many civil society organizations to call on the major space powers to agree on a moratorium on kinetic anti-satellite tests in orbit. We were therefore very pleased when U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris announced on April 18 that the United States would make a commitment not to conduct destructive antisatellite missile tests and called upon other nations to do the same in order to establish this as an emerging international norm of responsible behavior in space. To date, similar commitments have been made by Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Korea. We hope that in 2023 additional countries will join this group in making space a more predictable and safer environment and that in future years we can move towards a legally binding agreement cementing these voluntary commitments.

While unilateral declarations by States are nothing new, what is noteworthy about this one is that it focuses on refraining from certain behaviors, rather than refraining from developing or placing particular capabilities in space (which can be difficult to verify). In this regard, verification of not conducting destructive ASAT tests is essentially self-executing given the proliferation of space situational awareness capabilities now in the hands of many governmental and commercial sector actors around the world.  Unilateral declarations such as this can contribute to reducing the risks of armed conflict in space and also to creating fertile ground for discussing future legally binding space security arrangements.

This general approach towards focusing on behaviors, rather than technologies, is something that has also been gaining traction in the multilateral arena. This year saw the start of the United Nations’ Open-Ended Working Group on the Reduction of Space Threats Through Norms, Rules & Principles of Responsible Behaviors.   Despite the highly charged atmosphere in multilateral fora this year, the Working Group got off to a good start and managed to conclude its first two sessions in May and September, with all space powers present and participating in the dialogue.  SWF was pleased to support this multilateral process during both of the Working Group sessions.

We were encouraged by the progress made by this Working Group to date and we are hopeful that in 2023 the Working Group will build on this promising start to reach a consensus report that will advance the international conversation on enhancing space security through norms of behavior.  Such norms, while not legally binding, could help to create the conditions for later negotiation of binding instruments for space arms control.  

It is worth repeating here that war in space is not inevitable if we all make a conscious effort to preserve space as a domain for peaceful exploration and use by all nations. An indication of the importance that States attach to this issue may be gleaned from the records of the UN General Assembly.  In this year’s UN General Assembly session, there were six general assembly resolutions (some long-standing, some new) that addressed space security in one form or another: (i) Prevention of an arms race in outer space,  (ii) Reducing space threats through norms, rules & principles of responsible behaviors; (iii) Destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing; (iv) No first placement of weapons in space; (v) Further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space; and (vi) Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities.

The first and last of these resolutions were adopted without a vote and the others were all adopted with a large majority of countries in voting favor. While the voting patterns for the four resolutions that passed with a vote reflect predictable differences among the major space powers and their allies on different approaches to space security, the existence of the resolutions reflects a general desire among States to preserve space as a safe and stable operating environment under the rule of law, and to avoid space becoming a domain of conflict.

Secure World Foundation will continue to work with governments and intergovernmental organizations, commercial, and civil society entities to support these important and timely multi-stakeholder dialogues that advance the cooperative governance of space activities and the rule of law in space.

As the year draws to a close, we say farewell to two esteemed colleagues and welcome two new colleagues into the SWF family. In May, Jihan Asher, Operations and Communications Associate in our Washington, DC office, resigned her position to pursue her next career goal. We wish Jihan all the best in her new endeavors. At the end of 2022, Daniel Porras, our Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications will be leaving SWF to take up an opportunity in the private sector. We wish him all the best in his new role. We are pleased to welcome Tamara Tanso, our new Washington DC Office Operations Associate who joined us in November. In January, we will welcome Seth Walton as our new Program Associate in the Washington, DC office.

Looking forward, what are SWF’s plans for 2023?

Looking forward, in 2023, 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 close proximity operations in orbit, the deployment of very large constellations of satellites, 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 2023, we will continue our 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. We will seek to build common understandings of concepts pertinent to space sustainability and space security. We are also looking forward to publishing a new, updated edition of the SWF Handbook for New Actors in Space in 2023.

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. This will include a focus on supporting the development of best-practices, standards, and norms of responsible behaviors, as well as promoting actions that create fertile ground for the further development of a rules-based order in space. In support of such dialogues, we will continue to issue our Global Counterspace Capabilities report in 2023. We will also have a special focus on encouraging more countries to commit to moratoriums on destructive ASAT testing in space.

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. In 2023, we will focus on building connections among different regulatory communities and with the finance and insurance communities to promote responsible investment in space activities.

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.

Lastly, I can announce that, following careful consideration  we have decided to hold the 5th SWF Summit for Space Sustainability in June 2023 in New York City to connect the commercial space sector, the investment and insurance communities, the sustainable development community, and the UN diplomatic community in discussing the issue of space sustainability. A more detailed announcement will be made early in the new year.

In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our many valued partners and event sponsors, all our event participants, and our research collaborators for a very productive 2022. We wish you all a relaxing holiday season and we look forward to working with you in 2023 to promote the sustainable, safe, and peaceful long-term use of outer space in support of human and environmental security on Earth.

Last updated on June 30, 2023