Satellites, Space Law, and Planetary Citizens: Why Outer-Space Matters

Posted By August 17, 2016 No Comments

“So are you going to negotiate treaties with aliens?”

Dr. Cassandra Steer recounts this common question during our interview. One that she is often asked when people initially find out her occupation.

Dr. Steer is the Arsenault Fellow at the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law, and Executive Director of Women in International Security Canada (WIIS). In simpler terms, she is a “space lawyer.” Therefore to many, particularly those who are fans of the Hollywood renditions of galactic diplomacy (such as Independence Day), Dr. Steer has the futuristic job of negotiating between the beings of the ‘final frontier,’ and humanity.

This is, however, a common misconception. If you believe in aliens, then perhaps that development in Dr. Steer’s career is inevitable, but for now she’ll continue working on negotiating treaties with humans.

The realm she works in though, does breach the Earth’s boundaries – infiltrating the stars above.

After meeting Dr. Steer at the 9th annual WIIS conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia earlier this summer, I contacted her to find out more about the challenges and opportunities that are knocking on humanity’s door in regards to outer space.

Our conversation ultimately evolved into a whirlwind of topics, particularly the threats facing not only our technologies in space – such as satellites – but the principles first established by the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. The most important of which declares that the “the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”


The threats to the current outer space regime.

According to Dr. Steer, the essential principles of outer space outlined by the 1967 treaty, and several other agreements since, are increasingly under threat. Not only because these agreements are outdated (the United States and the Soviet Union were the only major players in space in 1967), but also because of developments in space commercialization, the proliferation of cyber warfare, the military use of space technologies, and the exponentially increasing issue of space debris or “space junk” orbiting the atmosphere. As well as more recently, the change in attitude towards outer space by major players such as the United States. Who increasingly see other actors, such as China and Russia, as aggressive adversaries in this supposedly “peaceful” realm.

Therefore Dr. Steer’s job isn’t to negotiate treaties with aliens, but instead to develop ways to maintain the legal and normative principles established in 1967 regarding outer space, in an increasingly changing world. As well as educate the next generation about “why space matters.”

Why space matters.

Since 1957, when the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into space, our economy, national security, and even trivial technologies such as our phone applications – like Pokemon Go – are at the mercy of outer space because of the thousands of satellites operating in it today.

According to the Union of Concern Scientists’ Satellite Database, as of June 30, 2016, there are 1,419 operational satellites orbiting the earth. A breakdown of the geopolitical origins of each of these satellites can be observed below.

(This chart is from the Union Of Concern Scientists’ Satellite Database, find the original here.)

Total number of operating satellites: 1,419 (includes launches through 6/30/16)
United States: 576 Russia: 140 China: 181 Other: 522
Low Earth Orbit: 780 Medium Earth Orbit: 96 Elliptical: 37 Geostationary Orbit: 506
Total number of U.S. satellites: 576
Civil: 12 Commercial: 286 Government: 132 Military: 146

In the 21st century we rely heavily on satellites – and increasingly so. They direct our television signals; they provide “in-flight phone communications,” and after a disaster which damages phone lines, they create alternative communication mechanisms. Satellites are the backbone of GPS, without which civilian and military systems and operations would not be able to navigate, particularly in situations where other navigation systems are impeded. Without GPS many phone applications, like Uber or Google Maps, would no longer function appropriately.

Communication satellites give businesses the ability to operate quickly between vast geographical locations, as well as allow customers to purchase items through their credit cards, or phones. Satellites also provide important weather information, such as the development of hurricanes and other dangerous weather systems, as well as track climate change. They are also increasingly providing assistance to international development operations. For example in 2013, the World Bank and the European Space Agency teamed up to collect scientific data (first in North Africa) utilizing satellites to “help communities in the developing world protect forests, plan urban growth, harness water resources, manage coastal zones, and increase resilience.”

As of this moment, arguably the most immediate threat to these satellites is space debris or “space junk.” NASA estimates that there are over 21,000 of these objects larger than 10cm orbiting the Earth today. According to Dr. Steer, however, the hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces in orbit are also a potential danger. “Something the size of a paint fleck can cause serious damage to a satellite or another space technology.”

The threat also comes from the satellites, and other technological objects, themselves. With more and more satellites being launched ever year, and currently no effective way to rid the orbit of non-operational satellites (or space debris), the realm is becoming congested. For example, in December 2009, Universe Today reported that a “commercial Iridium communications satellite collided with a Russian satellite…creating a cloud of wreckage in low-Earth orbit.” Although this was the first time such a collision between two satellites occurred, some analysts took it as a warning for things to come.

According to Dr. Steer, if any of our main communications satellites were to be seriously de-commissioned for example (thanks to an intentional or accidental incident) it would first lead to minor problems – you would lose the ability to stream the Rio Olympics – but would eventually lead to increasingly dangerous situations. Such as the complete loss of communication for air traffic controllers and pilots who rely on GPS signals from satellites. Richard Hollingham described a “day without satellites” for the BBC News in 2013, as apocalyptic but only if “everything failed at once, and that is unlikely.” However, without these satellites – even just one – “the world would be a very different place.”

In 1998 for example, a communications satellite – the Panamsat’s Galaxy 4 – failed, paralyzing some television and radio signals in the United States but more significantly, knocking out the signal for an estimated 80% of pagers used in the country. At a time when pagers were the smartphones of today, this was shocking, disruptive, and frightening. The incident thus jump-started a conversation regarding the world’s increasing dependence on space technologies.

We are planetary citizens.

At the end of my interview with Dr. Steer, we found ourselves devising ways to encourage people to get involved with organizations trying to solve these issues, and generating awareness. Such as the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) or the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). In particular, she emphasized:

“Once you start to link space to any issue that you’re interested in – which almost everything is integrated in some way or another to space technologies – then we can start to think of ourselves in terms of the next stage of cognitive development. As planetary citizens. That’s what is going to make the difference.”

In order to deal with the challenges we face, perhaps we must start thinking even beyond the idea of “global citizens,” which has taken root in the minds of today’s youngest generations, and begin thinking of ourselves as “planetary citizens.” People who are no longer solely connected to a single nation, a single continent, or even a single world – but to everything that lies beyond.


To view the video that accompanied this piece, please follow this link

Part II of this video and article series will look briefly at international and domestic space policy (including commercialization), and Part III will examine the militarization of space. These pieces will be published Wednesday, September 14th, and Wednesday, October 12th respectively.