Friday, August 14, 2020

But by the way, who manages what in space?

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After all, once past airspace, there are by definition no more borders. Beyond major space exploration projects, such as the American Voyager probes currently and for example, some 2,600 functional satellites are circling overhead. To which are added as much space debris, satellites at the end of their life, upper stages of launchers or fragmented machines.

A state affair

The conquest of space, like its use, is a matter for States, more precisely national space agencies, American NASA in the lead, or supranational ones, like ESA, the European Space Agency. France is part of ESA, while managing its own structure, the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and its 26 satellites. Among the main space agencies, let us quote the Chinese CNSA, Roscomos in Russia, ISRO in India.

In this constellation of agencies, giants rub shoulders with little thumbs. So when NASA has a budget of $ 21,500 million and the Chinese agency has $ 11,000 million (in 2019), the amount is reduced to $ 5,720 million for ESA, $ 1,320 million for India, up to less than 200 million for the Israeli and Iranian space agencies.

In fact, dozens of countries around the world have their space agency, including Algeria, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Peru or Taiwan.

An international treaty

Despite the independence of their programs, space agencies are not doing quite what they want in their corner. Headed by the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, which brings together 95 member states, and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), they are all signatories to treaties, agreements and international conventions.

The first of these is the Space Treaty, implemented in 1967, which governs the activities of States. It establishes a postulate still in force:

“Space is a free and common resource”

The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, their Return and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (1968), the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (1972), the Convention on the The registration of objects launched into space (1976) also set some rules.

Finally, the 1984 Moon Treaty intended to establish the membership of celestial objects in the international community. However, only fifteen countries have ratified it, and among them no nation with a manned space flight program. France signed the treaty, but never ratified it.

The example of the ISS

This failure of the Moon Treaty illustrates the limits of international cooperation in space. The real success story here is the International Space Station. Permanently inhabited since 2000 and rotating in orbit around the earth (at a speed of 27,600 km / h!), The research laboratory is the result of the collaboration of fifteen States, linked by an intergovernmental agreement.

These states were able to merge three projects, the American Freedom and Russian Mir 2 stations as well as the European Columbus laboratory, to give birth to the ISS. It is now co-managed by five space agencies, NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), ESA (Europe), JAXA (Japan) and ASC (Canada).

Elon Musk change la donne

We are far from the space battle launched during the Cold War by the USSR and the United States. Today, another player is changing the situation: the private sector, and more precisely the SpaceX company of American billionaire Elon Musk. It is the first private company to have succeeded in a manned flight, on May 30, and it is also its Crew Dragon capsule that will transport the French Thomas Pesquet to the ISS in 2021.

Beyond that, SpaceX thinks big, very big: the company has been authorized to place almost 12,000 satellites in space by the American authorities, via the Federal Communications Commission.

Because at the regulatory level at least, it couldn’t be easier than placing a satellite in space

Just register the craft with the UN, file an application with the ITU, the International Telecommunications Authority, if it is a telecommunications satellite – to actually avoid interference. .

And SpaceX is not the only company to feed satellite fleet projects: 900 at One Web, 2400 at Boeing, 4000 at Samsung… Not to mention Cubesat, inexpensive mini satellites (less than € 10,000). 500 should be launched this year, and still without regulation.

Risk of collision

In any case, there is no limitation on the number of satellites that can be sent into space. Of course, there is no larger place. But beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, there are no “space policemen” either.

Asked recently by LCI, CNES expert Christophe Bonnal explained:

“France is the only country in the world to have adopted a law to regulate the population of satellites, once in space. The other countries have simply adopted codes of good conduct ”

As a result, collisions are more and more frequent, and this is not likely to get better. If two active satellites are about to collide, it is still possible to change their trajectory. This is not the case with end-of-life satellites, which no longer activate their thrusters, and Cubesat, which simply do not have thrusters.

And when we know that all these devices can “roam” in orbit for hundreds or even thousands of years, not to mention light pollution for all those who observe space from the earth, we say that a minimum rules would probably not be a luxury.

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