Rich nations share space and its riches – and leave other countries behind

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(THE CONVERSATION) Satellites help power the internet and television and are at the heart of the global positioning system. They enable modern weather forecasting, help scientists track environmental degradation, and play a huge role in modern military technology.

Nations that do not have their own satellites providing these services depend on other countries. For those wishing to develop their own satellite infrastructure, the options are running out as space fills up.

I’m a researcher at Arizona State University, studying the broader benefits of space and ways to make it more accessible to developing countries.

Inequity is already playing out in access to satellites. In the not-too-distant future, the ability to extract resources from the Moon and asteroids could become a major point of difference between the haves and have-nots of space. As policies emerge, there is a risk that these inequalities will become permanent.

Where to park a satellite

Thanks to the rapid commercialization, miniaturization and falling costs of satellite technology in recent years, more countries are able to reap the benefits of space.

CubeSats are small, inexpensive, customizable satellites that are simple enough for high school students to build. Companies such as SpaceX can launch one of these satellites into orbit for a relatively low price – starting at $1,300 a pound. However, there are only a limited number of places to “park” a satellite orbiting Earth, and those fill up quickly.

The best parking lot is in geostationary orbit, about 22,250 miles (35,800 kilometers) above the equator. A satellite in geostationary orbit rotates at the same speed as the Earth, remaining directly above a single location on the Earth’s surface – which can be very useful for telecommunications, broadcasting and weather satellites.

There are only 1,800 geostationary orbital slots, and as of February 2022, 541 of them were occupied by active satellites. Countries and private companies have already claimed most of the unoccupied slots that provide access to major markets, and the satellites to fill them are currently being assembled or awaiting launch. If, for example, a new space nation wants to place a weather satellite above a specific location in the Atlantic Ocean that is already claimed, it will either have to choose a less optimal location for the satellite or buy services from the country. occupying the place. they wanted.

Orbital slots are allocated by a United Nations agency called the International Telecommunication Union. Slots are free to play, but are allocated to countries on a first-come, first-served basis. When a satellite reaches the end of its 15-20 year lifespan, a country can simply replace it and renew its grip on the slot. This effectively allows countries to retain these positions indefinitely. Countries that already have the technology to use geostationary orbit have a major advantage over those that don’t.

Although geostationary orbital slots are the most useful and limited, there are many other orbits around the Earth. These too are filling up, adding to the growing problem of space debris.

Low Earth orbit is approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) above the surface. Satellites in low Earth orbit move quickly in a very crowded environment. While this might be a good location for Earth imaging satellites, it’s not ideal for unique communications satellites – like those used to broadcast TV, radio and the internet.

Low Earth orbit can be used for communications if multiple satellites work together to form a constellation. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are working on plans to put thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit over the next few years to deliver internet around the world. The first generation of SpaceX’s Starlink consists of 1,926 satellites, and the second generation will add 30,000 more in orbit.

At the current rate, major space players are rapidly occupying geostationary and low-Earth orbits, potentially monopolizing access to significant satellite capacity and adding to space junk.

Access to resources in space

Orbital slots are an area where inequality exists today. The future of space could be a gold rush for resources – and not everyone will benefit.

Asteroids contain amazing amounts of minerals and precious metals. Later this year, NASA launches a probe to explore an asteroid named 16 Psyche, which scientists estimate contains more than $10 billion in iron. Mining huge deposits of resources like this and transporting them to Earth could provide a massive boost to the economies of space nations while disrupting the economies of countries that currently depend on the export of minerals and metals.

Another very valuable resource in space is helium-3, a rare version of helium that scientists believe could be used in nuclear fusion reactions without producing radioactive waste. Although there are considerable technological hurdles to overcome before helium-3 is a feasible energy source, if it works, there are enough deposits on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system to satisfy Earth’s energy needs for several centuries. If powerful space nations develop the technology to use and extract helium-3 — and choose not to share the benefits with other nations — it could lead to lasting inequality.

Existing international space laws are not well suited to manage the complex network of private companies and nations competing for resources in space. Countries organize themselves into groups – or “space blocks” – which unite on the objectives and rules of future space missions. Two notable space blocks plan missions to establish bases and potential mining operations on the Moon: the Artemis Accords, led by the United States, as well as Chinese and Russian joint ventures.

At the moment, the big players in space are setting the standards for exploiting resources. There is a risk that instead of focusing on what is best for everyone on Earth, competition drives those decisions, damaging the space environment and causing conflict. History shows that it is difficult to challenge international standards once they are established.

To advance

Access to space is essential to the functioning of a modern nation. Access to space will become increasingly important as humanity moves rapidly towards a future of space hotels and colonies on Mars.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the founding document of space law, stipulates that space should be used “for the benefit and in the interest of all countries”. The policies that take shape today will determine whether this will be the case in the future.

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