20th September 2017 Vienna, Austria
Boldly going: how the UN is helping govern space
When I was posted to Vienna in the 1980s, one of my unofficial roles at parties where foreigners were present was, as a German speaker, to go to the door when the police arrived to ask us to turn the music down. The police often arrived at 22.00 after receiving complaints from the neighbours.
Generally the police were notably polite and all went well. But on one occasion a female party guest from a country which was neither the UK nor Austria, and who had possibly had a glass of wine, approached one of the police officers, who was standing in the centre of the room; took the walky-talky from his lapel; and said “Beam me up, Scotty”. This was not good diplomacy.
So I was intrigued on returning to Vienna in 2016 to discover that the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs, UNOOSA, had been relocated to Vienna from New York in 1993.
UNOOSA is the UN agency responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It has around 30 staff and works with the space agencies of Member States to maintain the UN’s “Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space”. One of its chief functions is to serve as the Secretariat to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), established in 1959 shortly after the launch of the Soviet Union’s “Sputnik”, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957.
What are UK interests at COPUOS? The National Space Strategy calls on the UK to “implement commitments to cooperating internationally to create the legal frameworks for the responsible use of space, and to collaborating with other nations to deliver maximum benefit from UK investment in space”. Opportunities for future UK activity range from space tourism and space mining to interconnected satellite mega-constellations. Each prospect presents its own international policy and legal challenges. COPUOS is where we can shape and influence this policy response.
For example, COPUOS is home to negotiations on UN Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities. These guidelines aim to define international expectations on Member States activities – from sharing orbital information on space objects to promoting capacity-building in developing countries with emerging space programmes.
When the UK attends COPUOS meetings, our delegations often include UK academics (e.g from the University of Leicester) and business figures (e.g from Surrey Satellites). Such experts have recently, for example, made presentations at COPUOS on British expertise in space technology and innovative ways the UK is approaching the regulation of licensing applications for space activities.
2017 is a big year for COPUOS and UNOOSA: we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, the founding legal framework governing the activities of UN Member States in Space. We have started negotiations in Vienna on a UN resolution, due to pass in New York in October, to recognise the contributions that space technology has provided to society since the OST was signed.
Looking ahead, 2018 will see the UNISPACE + 50 conference, where the UK will join others in discussing the future shape of international cooperation and governance of human space activity. We have started preparations for the conference.
It’s not exactly Star Trek; but it is about promoting UK national interests in outer space. Having grown up at a time when people thought we would all be flying around in space by the 1990s (step forward, Dan Dare), I wait with interest to see when my first flight might be.