Just in Case
Outer Space Activities: Mega-constellations and International Cooperation
Έγινε ενημέρωση: 7 Μαΐ 2021
📝Written by : Sofia Kassara, Undergraduate Law Student at the University of Athens
It is a fact that new technologies have facilitated space activities, resulting in launches of satellites and space objects more than ever, so as to explore the outer space and benefit many countries. The first satellite launched by the Soviet Union was Sputnik 1, on 4 October 1957.Since then, even more satellites, including telecommunications satellites, started to possess a lot of slots in orbits around the Earth. Nowadays, the evolution of those technologies has made achievable the launch of mega-constellations by private entities dealing with space activities. Given the fact that these activities aim to promote international cooperation, following Article III of the Outer Space Treaty [hereinafter “OST”],(1) a question arises as to what extent international cooperation can be achieved, if the private sector monopolizes the construction and the launching of satellite-constellations.
A satellite constellation is defined as a group of artificial satellites which are placed in low orbits and work together. The satellites are placed carefully in order to be synchronized and to interconnect, avoiding any interference with each other. (2). Additionally, these satellites are smaller in size and cheaper, which makes the whole process even more appealing to the private sector. Nowadays, Starlink is the world's largest satellite internet constellation launched by SpaceX, which provides high-speed internet all around the world. Apart from that, OneWeb has proposed and is planning to deploy another satellite-constellation for the same use. Particularly, it aims at delivering Internet services to people in underserved communities such as in the Arctic. Furthermore, other constellations are currently proposed by Amazon, LeoSat, Kepler and Telesat, revealing their practical use.(3) Mega-constellations, which aim to provide internet access, constitute of telecommunications satellites and therefore the norms of international telecommunications law are de jure applied.
Articles III and XI of the Outer Space Treaty, such as Article 1 of the International Telecommunications Union Constitution [hereinafter “ITU Constitution”],(4) establish the principle of International Cooperation in Outer Space and Telecommunications Activities, something which requires the collaboration of two or more States. As far as the developing countries are concerned, they should not be precluded from space activities, due to their restricted financial abilities, as stated also in Article I OST and Article 1 of the ITU Constitution as well, which establish the principle of equity. Additionally, Article III of the OST mandates that the Charter of the United Nations should be taken into consideration and since the principle of equity is proposed in Article 1 paragraph 2 of the UN Charter, (5) the developing countries should also have the opportunity to participate in projects such as the mega-constellations. Moreover, Article 2 of the Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States, taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries, (6) points out that States are free to use Outer Space on an equitable and mutually acceptable basis. Also, in Article 3 of the same Declaration a reference is being made specifically to the developing countries. At this point, the Buenos Aires Declaration, set into force in 2017 by the World Telecommunication Development Conference, should be taken into consideration. Article 15 of this Declaration(7) points out ‘the equitable access to telecommunications/ICTs and to innovations that foster sustainable socio-economic development’, whereas Article 19 refers to the cooperation between developed and developing countries. But how could this be realistic, when powerful countries and private space agencies tend to monopolize such big projects, without giving the chance to the small and developing ones to contribute in their own way in those space activities? No infringement of the provisions of the aforementioned Articles can be established on behalf of the developed States, since they act in accordance with the first Article of the Outer Space Treaty, by applying the principle of Free Exploration and Use of Outer Space. Till now, States ,per se, have not been engaged in any mega-constellations projects, leaving the floor to the private sector only. But through bilateral or multilateral agreements between States, a transnational collaboration can be definitely achieved and mega-constellations can in the future promote a real international cooperation.
The importance of the principle of international cooperation in the context of mega-constellations is indisputable. Such a great project carries, inter alia , certain risks, which can be avoided on the basis of international cooperation along with the principle of good faith, established in Article 2 par. 2 of the UN Charter. At this point, it is essential to emphasize into the significance of Article II of the Registration Convention. (8) In accordance with the first paragraph of this Article: “ When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry, which it shall maintain.” In casu, mega-constellations constitute of thousands of satellites, being space objects, and shall be registered certainly before they are launched into outer space. Furthermore, the second paragraph of the same Article indicates that in case of a collaboration between States, “ the launching States shall jointly determine which one of them shall register the object in accordance with paragraph 1 of this Article. Additionally, the launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry. In the name of good faith, the country or the space agency, which is going to launch a mega-constellation ,shall exchange information with the other States and non-governmental entities, in order for a possible collision between the constellation and the already launched objects - or objects that are going to be launched in the future - to be avoided. The principle of Exchange of Information, stated in Guideline B4 for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities, (9) and the obligation of registration set the foundations of a successful international cooperation, so as collisions, uncontrolled maneuvers, space debris and harmful interferences can be averted.
Ultimately, it is obvious that the key to success in Outer Space activities, and especially in the field of mega-constellations, is international cooperation. Its importance is clear, since this principle is laid down not only in hard but also in soft law. This new practice of constellations can , surely , benefit humanity in many aspects, indicating undoubtedly the real binding between science, technology and law.
(1) Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, entered into force Oct. 10, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205.
(2) Mathilde Minet,The space legal issues with mega-constellations,Space Legal Issues (2020)
(3) Christopher D. Johnson,The Legal Status of MegaLEO Constellations and Concerns About Appropriation of Large Swaths of Earth Orbit,HANDBOOK OF SMALL SATELLITES(2020) at p.14
(4) Constitution of the International Telecommunications Union,entered into force Jul. 1,1994,article 1,A.T.S.(1994)28; B.T.S 24 (1996).
(5) UN CHARTER,article 1 para. 2
(6) Adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 51/122 of 13 December 1996
(7) Buenos Aires Declaration, Buenos Aires, Nov. 7. 2017,Article 15
(8) Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, entered into force Sept. 15, 1976, art.1, 28 U.S.T. 695, 1023 U.N.T.S. 15
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