Space Norms and U.S. National Security: Leading on Space Debris
It has been a busy few months for human activity in space. There is a new rover on Mars sending back jaw-dropping pictures and data. In May, a piece of debris from a Chinese rocket weighing 21 metric tons hurtled uncontrolled into the Indian Ocean. And Richard Branson just took matters into his own hands, flying to the edge of space on a Virgin Galactic spaceplane with Jeff Bezos hot on his heels.
Nearly 50 years after the end of the last space race, the competition is back. America’s well-known economic and military dependence on open access to space is being challenged. As stated in the 2020 U.S. Defense Space Strategy, “China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.” But even putting geopolitics aside, the complexity of a more crowded space environment increases the chances of collisions and miscalculations.
Consistent technical and operational standards and norms could prevent conflict and preserve the space commons. And given the pace of change and the urgency of the requirement, it is a safe bet that neither other countries nor the private sector will wait for the U.S. government or the United Nations to work through a laborious policy process.
This rapidly changing space environment means that the new U.S. Defense Department memorandum on responsible behavior in space should be the first salvo in a renewed American approach to set standards and establish norms of behavior for public and private sector actors in space. The United States has the world’s most advanced space capabilities, but those capabilities generate vulnerabilities. Locking in norms of responsible behavior in space now will create barriers for actors that seek to behave badly in space. Establishing norms can generate international cooperation and credibility to counter potential Chinese and Russian aggression while making it more likely that space remains a safe and accessible commons.
Articulating Responsible Behavior in Space
On July 7, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed an important one-page memorandum with the subject “Tenets of Responsible Behavior in Space.” The memo was the culmination of efforts to articulate norms of behavior within the Defense Department, following up on calls from the chief of space operations, among others.
The memo offers five tenets for responsible departmental behavior:
- Operate in, from, to, and through space with due regard to others and in a professional manner.
- Limit the generation of long-lived space debris.
- Avoid the creation of harmful interference.
- Maintain safe separation and safe trajectory.
- Communicate and make notifications to enhance the safety and stability of the domain.
The memo charges the commander of U.S. Space Command with fleshing out the implementation for the Department of Defense and the under secretary of defense for policy with advancing these tenets within the U.S. government and, more significantly, “in international relations.”
The memo is a good first step, arguably the first unclassified statement of its kind from the United States. Given the challenges of policy coordination and the diverse stakeholders in the space arena, coming to such a firm, declarative statement is impressive. Stating these tenets clearly will allow America to lead by example — doing so provides direction to U.S. policymakers.
New Defense Department Tenets: Just a First Step
Though a significant first step, the tenets underline the extent to which the Department of Defense must move even faster if it is to operate at the speed of the problem. The fast-evolving conversation on space debris illustrates the issue.
Others have talked about the need to get ahead of the space debris problem in the pages of this publication (see: here, here, and here). The conversation on that subject has evolved beyond debris creation to debris mitigation and removal.
Ideally, the architects of the first space race would have given as much thought to getting things out of orbit as they did to getting them into orbit. But at the time, the number of available orbits seemed infinite, and space had not yet been commoditized. Now that valuable orbital slots are harder to come by, there is increased attention to removing debris rather than merely limiting its creation.
The “dual-use” problem complicates the prospects for international cooperation on space cleanup technology, particularly as it relates to norm formation. Many of the tools ostensibly designed to clear debris could just as easily attack an active satellite central to another country’s security or economy. In other words, the conversation starts blending Austin’s second tenet (limiting debris) with the third and fourth tenets (avoiding interference and maintaining safe separation and trajectories).
There is money to be made in clearing out valuable orbital slots, so the private sector is not waiting to act. In May, for example, Astroscale, a commercial space company based in Japan (though it has U.S. subsidiaries) launched a pair of satellites to test a new way to clean up orbital debris. The idea was to assess whether a “chaser” mini-satellite could safely capture a target in various scenarios. If the chaser can consistently catch a defunct satellite, the chaser can then safely move it out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere. Several similar efforts are underway that use lasers, electrodynamic tethers, nets, harpoons, and even “sticky foam spiderwebs.” Notably, these efforts are being undertaken primarily by companies rather than countries, and most of those companies are not American.
It will be critical to develop technical and operational norms and standards to govern these approaches to debris mitigation. Astroscale’s approach is interesting in this regard because it relies on pre-installed magnetic docking plates. This may seem limiting, but it could help to mitigate the dual-use problem by credibly limiting targets to those who have signed up in advance. At the same time, pre-installing the plates would demonstrate trust and a good-faith effort to prevent littering. This is a crucial step toward forming shared standards that garner international support. Capturing space debris with a net, by contrast, would set a very different standard.
Efforts to develop effective space cleanup technology could give rise to other shared standards for space. Standards lead to predictable, responsible behaviors. Consistent behaviors can become durable norms. But that means the next step for U.S. space policy is to engage in this process of standards formation in parallel to the heftier conversation on core tenets.
Why Leading on Space Debris Is in America’s Interest
The United States was at the forefront of the first space race, and it should lead the race to clean up Earth’s orbit because facilitating international cooperation could be good for U.S. national security and the U.S. economy. Other countries are already making plays. Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency “was among the world’s first space agencies to define national space debris mitigation guidelines,” according to a 2020 report by Kaitlyn Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. U.K.-based companies have become some of the leading innovators in orbital debris clean-up.
The United Kingdom and Japan are exploring standards and best practices in debris mitigation and removal. By offering support to efforts undertaken by such close allies, the United States would lend credibility to those approaches and retain an ability to influence them. The alternative would be to adhere to standards set by others. It may seem simplistic, but when America approaches challenges in space collaboratively, “we share both the burden and the rewards.”
Leading the international conversation on standards and behavior will enable the United States to convert its narrowing advantage in space into something more durable. Setting the terms of conversations about responsible behavior in space, even if it starts just among allies and partners, can help encourage responsible behavior, discourse dangerous behavior, and build an international coalition that ensures space is open and protected in ways that promote U.S. interests.
In many rapidly changing areas, including cyber security, AI, and autonomous systems, the United States is already taking this global leadership role. Space ought to be on that list, even if the number of private sector actors and countries engaging in space means the U.S. government cannot control everything.
What can the U.S. government do that plays to its strengths and the unique role of government? First, the Department of Defense should accelerate its efforts to develop mechanisms for working with greater speed cross-functionally with stakeholders on space issues across the department and the U.S. government.
Second, the Department of Defense should continue investing in cooperative mechanisms that allow for coordination and information sharing with like-minded nations and industry. Some good things have happened on that front already, such as Spacing Sharing Agreements the United States has signed with over 100 countries to provide data and collision avoidance notifications, and the Combined Space Operations Initiative, which offer opportunities for expansion. When like-minded states have established venues for cooperation, they can more ably and nimbly build tenets into something more.
Third, making the new tenets of responsible behavior effective will require effective strategic messaging conducted in coordination with partners. Developing agreed-upon practices for messaging in advance will allow the Defense Department to engage with international partners to rapidly and effectively call out irresponsible behaviors by other actors in space.
Finally, setting effective norms will require more thinking across the U.S. government about how the United States can best use its capabilities to preserve stability in the increasingly congested and contested space environment. Acknowledging capabilities can generate deterrence, but it also creates vulnerabilities as adversaries attempt to disrupt those capabilities. Secrecy maintains flexibility and the potential for surprise, but it can impinge on the ability of the United States to call out the bad behavior of other countries and make cooperation among allies and partners more challenging. If the United States is to champion norms and call out bad behavior in space it must navigate this dilemma, which will require interagency coordination.
Policymakers often reflexively treat space activity as a government function. That’s not how the new space competition is evolving. It once was “astronomically expensive” to go to space, but revolutions in computing and manufacturing technologies have opened the door to everyone from small countries to university classrooms. The environment has changed, and America’s approach needs to continue changing — but faster — to build on the momentum of the recent memo from the U.S. defense secretary. With the democratization of space comes an increased need for responsible behavior and a sustainable operating environment, especially if some actors are looking to move to satellites with even shorter life spans and others are launching constellations of satellites across the sky. If governments fail to coordinate rules of the road, companies might. And they may not be American companies, or companies friendly to American interests.
Space began as a relatively slow-moving arena heavily controlled by governments. It is easier for norms to form in such an environment. But space is now evolving to look more like cyberspace: fast-moving with lots of private actors. This is a much more challenging environment, one that policy makers need to get in front of. The United States can no longer cling to the old approach given how much is at stake.
Philip Potter (@pbkpotter) is director of the National Security Policy Center and associate professor at the University of Virginia.
Honorable George W. Foresman is executive director of the National Security Policy Center at the University of Virginia
Michael C. Horowitz (@mchorowitz) is director of Perry World House, Richard Perry Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The authors would like to thank Sarah Mineiro for her helpful feedback. All errors are the sole responsibility of the authors.