By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
Outer space has become a global commons and is becoming a busy place. Around 1,800 satellites are currently orbiting Earth. After serving humankind, all satellites are doomed to die and become space junk. Today’s satellites are tomorrow’s space debris. There are currently approximately 2,100 objects of debris, traveling at great speed, tracked by space surveillance networks. Space debris can pose a collision risk to functional satellites, and several failures have been attributed to space debris.
We enjoy the benefits of work in space every day. Communication satellites enable broadcasting, telephone and TV signals, provide Internet linkages and support financial transactions. Earth satellites provide data about the planet’s ecosystems and the weather and are a help in international treaty verification. When a communication satellite malfunctioned in 1998, it caused great disruption—credit cards failed and some radio and TV networks went off the air.
There are examples of cooperation in space activities. Since 1994, the UN Committee for the peaceful uses of outer space cooperates with NASA in monitoring space debris. Another example of cooperation is the scientific work being done by people from many nations in the International Space Station, launched in 1998.
The UN is very concerned with the possible militarization of outer space. Treaties regarding weapons in space are inadequate. The placement of nuclear weapons in space is prohibited under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty still in effect. The treaty, however, does not prohibit nuclear warheads on missiles launched from the ground into space.
Capabilities of other countries are growing. China showed that it can destroy a target in space when it destroyed its own defunct weather satellite in 2007. Clearly, more international agreements are needed.
Recently, President Trump announced that he is going to establish a sixth branch of the military called the “Space Force.” Also, he stated that America must have dominance in space. Establishment of a new branch of the military would require approval of Congress. The establishment of a space force undermines the peaceful use of space and is very dangerous. Ironically, Trump’s statement came as the UN hosted a conference discussing the peaceful uses of space and how it can benefit humanity. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty.
President Trump’s idea of dominance is sure to be challenged by other countries. Furthermore, dominance deprives us of the real benefits of cooperation.
In musing on the Outer Space Treaty, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, said: “Why do we promise we’ll treat each other nicely in space? If that’s successful, why don’t we have a peaceful use of Earth treaty?” Amen to that.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.