One Small Step: Anticipatory Diplomacy in Outer Space


The $350 billion space industry could grow to more than $1 trillion by 2040, spurring international interest in harnessing space resources. But this interest will bring with it a challenge: while existing international agreements like the Artemis Accords promote the peaceful and shared exploration of celestial bodies, they do little to address differences between existing scientific research activities and emerging opportunities like lunar mining, particularly for water ice at polar latitudes and in the perpetually shaded depths of certain craters. Lunar water ice will be a vital resource for outer space exploration and development efforts because it can be used to make hydrogen fuel cells, rocket fuel, and drinking water for astronauts. It will also be cheaper than transporting water from Earth’s surface into outer space, given the moon’s lower surface gravity and proximity to human space operations on its surface and beyond. The moon harbors other valuable long-term commodities like helium-3, the fuel needed for low-emissions nuclear fusion energy.

However, current multilateral agreements do not address whether nongovernmental operators can claim territory on celestial bodies for their use or own the resources they extract. Further, the space object registration process is currently used for satellites and other spacecraft while in orbit, but it does not include space objects intended for use on the surface of celestial bodies, such as mining equipment. These gaps leave few options for the United States or other Artemis Accords nations to resolve conflicts over territorial claims on a celestial body. In the worst-case scenario, this increasing competition for resources—especially with other major space powers like China and Russia—could escalate into military conflict. 

Adopting new treaties or amendments to the existing Outer Space Treaty (OST) for modern space use is a slow process that may fail to meet the urgency of emerging space resource issues. However, the United States has another diplomatic avenue for faster action: revision of the existing United Nations’ Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space under the auspices of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). Such a process avoids the decade-long deliberations of a formal treaty amendment. The United States should thus lead the development of multilateral protocols for extracting resources from celestial bodies by proposing two updates to either the COPUOS Guidelines, the OST, or both. First, there should be an updated registration process for all space objects, which should specify the anticipated location, timeline, and  type(s) of operation to establish usage rights on a particular part of a celestial body. Second, the United Nations should establish a dispute resolution process to allow for peaceful resolution of competing claims on celestial surfaces. These strategies will lay the necessary foundation for peacefully launching new mining operations in space.

Challenge and Opportunity 

Right now, outer space is akin to the Wild West, in that the opportunities for scientific innovation and economic expansion are numerous, yet there is little to no political or legal infrastructure to facilitate orderly cooperation between interested terrestrial factions. For example, any nation claiming mining rights to lunar territory is on shaky legal ground, at best: the Outer Space Treaty and the subsequent Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space, promulgated by the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, do not provide legally sound or internationally recognized development rights, enforcement structures, or deconfliction mechanisms. If one claimant allegedly violates the territorial rights of another, what legal systems could either party use to press their case? Moreover, what mechanisms would avert potential escalation toward militarized conflict? Right now, the answer is none. 

This is an unfortunate obstacle to progress given the enormous economic potential of outer space development in the coming decades. To put the potential value in perspective, the emerging $350 billion space industry could grow to more than $1 trillion by 2040, motivating significant international interest. One potentially lucrative subset of operations is space mining, a sector valued at $1 billion today with a potential value of $3 billion by 2027. Once operational, space mining would be a valuable source of rare earth elements (e.g., neodymium, scandium, and others), 60% of which are currently produced in China. Rare earth elements are necessary for essential technologies such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, computers, and medical equipment. Additionally, in the event that nuclear fusion becomes commercially viable in the long-term future, space mining will be an essential industry for securing helium-3 (He-3), an abundant isotope found on the moon. Recent increases in fusion investment and a breakthrough in fusion research show the potential for fusion energy, but there is no guarantee of success. He-3 could serve as a critical fuel source for future nuclear fusion operations, an emerging form of energy production free of carbon emissions that could provide humanity with the means to address global climate and energy crises without losing energy abundance. The abundance of lunar He-3 could mean having access to secure clean energy for the foreseeable human future.

Furthermore, human exploration and development of outer space will require water, both in the form of drinking water for crewed missions and in the form of rocket propellant and fuel cell components for spacecraft. As it costs over $1 million to transport a single cubic meter of water from Earth’s surface into low Earth orbit, extracting water from the lunar surface for use in outer space operations could be substantially more economical due to the moon’s lower escape velocity—in fact, lunar water ice is estimated to be worth $10 million per cubic meter. 

The space mining sector and lunar development also offer promise far beyond Earth. Our moon is the perfect “first port of call” as humanity expands into outer space. It has lower surface gravity, polar ice deposits, and abundant raw materials such as aluminum, and its status as our closest celestial neighbor make it the ideal layover supply depot and launch point for spacecraft from Earth heading deeper into our solar system. Spacecraft could be launched from Earth with just enough fuel to escape Earth’s gravity, land and refuel on the moon, and launch far more efficiently from the moon’s weaker gravity elsewhere into the system. 

All in all, the vast untapped scientific and economic potential of our moon underscores the need for policy innovation to fill the gaps in existing international space law and allow the development of outer space within internationally recognized legal lines. The imperative for leading on these matters falls to the United States as a nation uniquely poised to lead the space mining industry. Not only is the United States one of the global leaders in space operations, but U.S. domestic law, including the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, provides the U.S. private sector some of the necessary authority to commercialize space operations like mining. However, the United States’ rapid innovation has also led the way to a growing space industry internationally, and the sector is now accessible to more foreign states than before. The internationalization of the space economy further highlights the gaps and failings of the existing space policy frameworks. 

Two main challenges must be addressed to ensure current governance structures are sufficient for securing the future of lunar mining. First is clarifying the rights of OST State Parties and affiliated nongovernmental operators to establish space objects on celestial bodies and to own the resources extracted. The OST, the primary governing tool in space (Figure 2), establishes that no State that signed the treaty may declare ownership over all or part of a celestial body like the moon. And despite the domestic authority bestowed by the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, the multilateral OST does not address whether nongovernmental operators can claim territory and own resources they extract from celestial bodies. Thus, the OST promotes the peaceful and shared exploration of space and scientific research but does little to address differences between research operations and new commercial opportunities like lunar mining. This leaves few options to resolve conflicts that may arise between competing private sector entities or States.

Even if domestic authorization of mining operations were sufficient, a second challenge has emerged: ensuring transparency and recordkeeping of different operations to maintain peaceful shared operations in space. Through the OST and the Registration Convention, States have agreed to inform the U.N. Secretary General of space activities and to maintain a record of registered space objects (including a unique identifier, the location and date of launch, and its orbital path). But this registration process covers space objects simply at a geospatial position in orbit, and there are gaps in the process for space objects intended for use on the surface of celestial bodies and whether a spacecraft that was designed for one purpose (i.e., landing) can be repurposed for another purpose (i.e., mining). This leaves little recourse for any group that seeks to peacefully pursue mining operations on the moon’s surface if another entity also seeks to use that land.

In spite of these gaps, the U.S. government has been able to move forward with scaling up moon-related space missions via NASA’s bipartisan Artemis Program and the corresponding Artemis Accords (Figure 1), a set of bilateral agreements with updated principles for space use. The Accords have 24 signatories who collectively seek to reap the benefits of emerging space opportunities like mining. In part, the Artemis Accords aim to remedy the policy gaps of previous multilateral agreements like the OST by explicitly supporting private sector efforts to secure valuable resources like He-3 and water ice.

Artemis Accords
Figure 1.1
Outer Space Treaty
Figure 1.2

But the Accords do not address the key underlying challenges that could stifle U.S. innovation and leadership in space mining. For instance, while the Accords reaffirm the need to register space objects and propose the creation of safety zones surrounding lunar mining operations, gaps still remain in describing exactly how to register operations on celestial objects. This can be seen in Section 7 of the Artemis Accords, which states that space objects need to be registered, but does not specify what would classify as a “space object” or if an object registered for one purpose can be repurposed for other operations. Further, the Accords leave little room to address broader international tensions stemming from increased resource competition in space mining. While competition can have positive outcomes such as spurring rapid innovation, unchecked competition could escalate into military conflict, despite provisions in the original OST to avoid this.

In particular, preemptive measures must be taken to alleviate potential tensions with other OST signatories in direct competition with the Accords. China and Russia are not party to the Accords and therefore do not need to abide by the agreement. In fact, these nations have declared opposition to the Accords and instead formed their own partnership to establish a competing International Lunar Research Station. As these programs develop concrete lunar applications, designating methods to determine who can conduct what type of operations on specific timelines and in specific locations will be a crucial form of anticipatory diplomacy.

Plan of Action 

The United States should propose that when any State registers a space object in advance of operations on a celestial body, it must specify the anticipated location of the operation; the timeline; and the type(s) of operation, described as “intent to” do one or more of the following: mine/extract resources for sale, conduct scientific research, or perform routine maintenance. This multilaterally developed process would clarify the means to register space objects for peaceful occupation of celestial object surfaces. 

Additionally, the United States should propose the implementation of a process for States to resolve disputes through either bilateral negotiation or arbitration through another mutually agreed-upon third party such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Similar disputes related to maritime resource extraction under the United Nations Law of the Sea have been resolved peacefully using the aforementioned bilateral negotiations or third party arbitration. The new dispute resolution process would similarly allow for peaceful resolution of competing claims on celestial body surfaces and resources.

To guide the creation of a space object arbitration process, other such processes like the ICJ, PCA, and International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea can be used as models. The PCA has had success with halting unfair processes and setting up a dialogue between participating parties. It has helped smaller countries set up arbitration processes with bigger ones, such as Ecuador vs. the United States, in which the Republic of Ecuador instituted arbitral proceedings against the United States concerning the interpretation and application of an investment treaty between the two countries. In the short term, existing negotiation avenues will likely be sufficient to allow for dispute resolution. However, as the space industry continues to grow, it may eventually be necessary to establish an internationally recognized “Space Court” to arbitrate disputes. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea provides an example of the type of international body that could arbitrate space disputes.

These anticipatory diplomacy steps could be implemented in one of three ways: 

  1. As a binding amendment to the OST: This would require the most time to implement, but this would also make it enforceable and binding, an obvious advantage. It would also provide an opportunity to bring all the important players to the table, specifically the parties who did not sign the Artemis Accords, and would help to start a discussion on the improvement of diplomatic relations for future space operations.
  2. As a nonbinding update to COPUOS Guidelines: This would be faster to implement, but would not be enforceable or binding.
  3. As an update to the COPUOS Guidelines followed by an amendment to the OST: This would allow for both quick action in the nearer term and a permanent and enforceable implementation longer-term. Implementing a revised COPOUS could be a precursor to build support for the nonbinding updates to COPUOS. If the model is successful, State Parties would be more likely to agree to a binding amendment to OST. However they are implemented, these two proposed anticipatory diplomacy steps would improve the ability of space faring nations to peacefully use resources on celestial bodies.

Could this be done through bilateral agreements? After all, the United States has shown diplomatic initiative by entering into agreements with countries such as France, Germany, and India with the aim of using space for peaceful purposes and cooperation, though they don’t explicitly mention mining. But a bilateral process does not offer good prospects for global solutions. For one, it would be very slow and time-consuming for the United States to enter into bilateral agreements with every major country with stakes in lunar mining. If space mining agreements were to occur on a similar timeline to bilateral trade agreements, each agreement could take from one to six years to take effect. A crucial obstacle is the Wolf Amendment, which prevents the United States from entering into bilateral agreements with China, one of the its major competitors in the space industry. This restriction makes it hard to negotiate bilaterally with an important stakeholder concerning space mining.

Further, reaching these agreements would require addressing aspects of the Accords that have made many major stakeholder countries hesitant to sign on. Thus, an easier path would be to operate diplomatically through the COPUOS, which already represents 95 major countries and oversees the existing multilateral space treaties and potential amendments to them. This approach would ensure that the United States still has some power over potential amendment language but would bring other major players into some sort of dialogue regarding the usage of space for commercial purposes. 

While the COPUOS guidelines are not explicitly binding, they do provide a pathway for verification and arbitration, as well as a foundation for the adoption of a binding amendment or a new space treaty moving forward. Treaty negotiations are a slow, lengthy process; the OST required several years of work before it took full effect in 1967. With many Artemis Program goals reliant upon successful launches and milestones achieved by 2025, treaty amendments are not the timeliest approach. Delays could also be caused by the fact that some parties to the OST may have reservations about adopting an amendment for private sector space use due to another space treaty, the Moon Agreement. This agreement, which the United States is not party to, asserts that “the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become feasible.” Thus, countries that have signed the Moon Agreement probably want the moon to operate like a global commons with all countries on Earth having access to the fruits of lunar mining or other resource extraction. Negotiations with these nations will require time to complete.

The U.S. State Department’s Office of Space Affairs, under the Bureau of Oceans and Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), is the lead office for space diplomacy, exploration, and commercialization and would be the ideal office to craft the required legislation for an OST amendment. Additionally, the Office of Treaty Affairs, which is often tasked with writing up the legal framework of treaties, could provide guidance on the legislation and help initiate the process within the U.S. State Department and the United Nations. Existing U.S. law like the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, and international treaties like OST and Registration Convention, provide authority for these proposals to be implemented in the short term. However, negotiation of updates to COPOUS Guidelines and amendments to the OST and other relevant space treaties over the next 5 to 10 years will be essential to their long term success.

Finally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the Department of Transportation would be the logical federal agency to initially lead implementing the updated registration process for U.S.-affiliated space objects and for verifying the location and intended use of space objects from other nations. FAA implements the current U.S. process for space objects registration. In the long term it could be appropriate to transfer responsibility for space object registration to the rapidly growing Office of Space Commerce (OSC) at the Department of Commerce. Moving responsibilities for implementing space object registration and verification to the OSC would provide opportunities for the office to expand with the rapidly expanding space industry. This change would also allow the FAA to focus on its primary responsibilities for regulating the domestic aerospace industry. 


Douglas Adams may have put it best: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” While Adams was describing the sheer size of space, this description applies just as well to the scale of outer space’s scientific and economic prospects. After all, any new economic theater that will grow into a multi-trillion dollar market in just a few decades is not to be taken lightly. But without a plan to avert and resolve potential conflicts with other outer space actors, the United States’ future efforts in this emerging theater will be hamstrung. Improved collaboration on space mining provides an opportunity to promote international cooperation and economic development, while military conflict in space poses high risks to the economic potential of the current and future space industry. Transparent and widely agreed-upon frameworks would allow for peaceful competition on scientific research and resource extraction on celestial objects.

Lunar mining has shown promise for providing access to water ice, rare earth metals, He-3, and other raw materials crucial for the further exploration of space. Providing a peaceful and secure source of these materials would build on the bipartisan Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act’s guidelines for space resource extraction and, in the long run, further enable the modernization and decarbonization of the U.S. electric grid for public benefit. 

In order to promote the peaceful exploration and development of space, we must update existing international law—either the COPUOS Guidelines, the OST, or both—to clarify the locations, timeline, and types of outer space operations conducted by state actors. We must also propose deconfliction mechanisms for OST parties to resolve disputes peacefully via bilateral negotiation or arbitration by a mutually acceptable third party like the ICJ or PCA. Just as the United States led the world into the “final frontier” in the 20th century, so too must we lead the next chapter in the 21st. If implemented successfully, the anticipatory space diplomacy we propose will allow for the shared peaceful use of celestial bodies for decades to come.


Dr. Sindhu Nathan provided valuable insights into the writing of this memo.

Frequently Asked Questions
How much would this proposal cost?

There would be no additional cost to the recommendation outside of existing costs for diplomatic and U.N. activities. The Artemis Program is expected to cost $93 billion through 2025 and Congressional appropriators are already questioning the billion-dollar price tag for each planned launch. Thus, clarifying these legal frameworks may help incentivize private innovation and reduce launch costs. This proposal may facilitate economic benefits at virtually no extra cost. Therefore, the United States and Artemis Accords nations have a vested interest to ensure that these continuing investments result in successful missions with as few additional costs as possible. This proposal will likely also facilitate further private investment and innovation and protect against risk to investment from military conflict.

How does this proposal parallel existing international agreements?

Another similar treaty, the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, is a great example of how different countries can unite and create a dialogue to effectively manage and share a common resource. Although the region is used for various scientific purposes, all countries can do so in a peaceful and cooperative manner. This is in part because the Antarctic treaty has been systematically updated to reflect the changing times, especially concerning the environment. The OST has not undergone any such changes. Thus, updating the COPUOS would provide a means for the United States to take the lead in ensuring that space remains a common shared resource and that no country can unfairly claim a monopoly over it.

When, if ever, will nuclear fusion be viable?

Nuclear fusion is currently not commercially viable. However, significant interest and investment is currently centered around this potential energy source, and breakthroughs in the technology have been recently reported by leading researchers in the field. Access to He-3 will be critical if and when this industry is commercially viable.

How would the effectiveness of these guidelines be evaluated?

The OST currently allows State Parties to observe space flights and access equipment for any other OST State Party. One way States could use this power to ensure these guidelines are followed is for States and the COPUOS to track how many and what types of space object operations occur on celestial bodies. (The U.S. Department of Defense already tracks over 26,000 outer space objects, but cross-referencing with COPUOS could help differentiate between debris and state objects of interest.) Interested or concerned parties could verify the accuracy of registered operations of space objects on celestial bodies led by other States, and any violations of the new guidelines could be referred to the new dispute resolution process.

In the United States, the Guidelines would be ratified in the same way as other United Nations regulations and international treaties, in the form of an executive agreement. These are directly implemented by the president and do not require a majority in the Senate to be passed but are still legally binding.

How feasible is it for an individual country to add guidelines to a United Nations treaty? Is there precedence for it?

The purpose of a neutral organization like the United Nations is to engage in meaningful dialogue between powerful countries. Since space is a common shared resource, it is best to ensure that all parties have a stage to be part of talks that deal with the sharing of resources. Suggesting guidelines to a popular treaty is a good place to start, and the United States can show leadership by taking the first step while also advocating for terms that are beneficial to U.S. interests.

All the signatories of the COPOUS meet every year to discuss the effectiveness of the treaty, and countries propose various statements to the chair of the committee. (The United States’ statements from the 65th meeting of the committee in 2022 can be found here.) Although there is no obvious precedent where a statement has directly been converted into guidelines, it would still be useful to make a statement regarding a possible addition of guidelines, and one could reasonably hope it could open doors for negotiations.

How effective would the arbitration process be?

Arbitration processes such as those described in the U.N. Conventions on the Law of the Sea ensure that powerful countries are not able to dominate smaller countries or frighten them with the possibility of war. Although the verdict of the arbitration process would have to be enforced by OST States, it provides a peaceful alternative to immediate military conflict. This would at least halt disputed proceedings and give time for States involved with the dispute to gather resources and support. The existence of an arbitration process would reinforce the principle that all OST States, both small and large, are entitled to access space as an equal resource for all.

Taking Out the Space Trash: Creating an Advanced Market Commitment for Recycling and Removing Large-Scale Space Debris


In the coming decades, the United States’ space industry stands to grow into one of the country’s most significant civil, defense, and commercial infrastructure providers. However, this nearly $500 billion market is threatened by a growing problem: space trash. Nonoperational satellites and other large-scale debris items have accumulated in space for decades as a kind of celestial junkyard, posing a serious security risk to future business endeavors. When companies launch new satellites needed for GPS, internet services, and military operations into Earth’s lower orbit, they risk colliding with dead equipment in the ever-crowding atmosphere. While the last major satellite collision was over a decade ago, it is only a matter of time until the next occurs. As space traffic density increases, scientists project that collisions (and loss of satellite-based services as a result) will become progressively problematic and frequent. 

Due to the speed of innovation within the space industry, the rate of space commercialization is outpacing the federal government’s regulatory paradigms. Therefore, the U.S. government should give businesses the means to resolve the space debris problem directly. To do so, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Space Force, and the Department of Commerce (DOC) should create an advanced market commitment for recycling and de-orbiting satellites and large-sized debris. By incentivizing businesses with financial stimulus, novel regulation, and sustained market ecosystems, the federal government can mitigate the space debris problem in a way that also bolsters national economic growth.

Challenge and Opportunity

The sustainability and security of Earth’s outer orbit and the future success of launch missions depend on the removal of sixty years’ worth of accumulated space debris. The space debris population in the lower-Earth orbit (LEO) region has reached the point where the environment is considered unstable. Over 8,000 metric tons of dead, human-deposited objects orbit the planet, including over 13,000 defunct satellites. While this accumulated trash is the product of numerous countries’ space activities, the United States is an undeniably large contributor to the problem. Approximately 30% of orbiting, functional satellites belong to the United States. As such, we as a nation have a responsibility to tackle the space debris challenge head-on. 

Space is becoming littered with dead satellites, and the United States is a major contributor. Over 19,000 satellites have been launched between 1950 and 2020 and currently orbit the Earth (Tile A). The red dots in Tile B above represent the satellites, both dead and active, owned and launched by the United States. Nearly 70% of all satellites in orbit are classified as “junk” (Tile C). The United States is one of the largest contributors of satellite refuse, second only to Russia (4,138 satellites vs. 4,714; Tile D). (Source: Generated using ESRI satellite data)

Our nation’s responsibility is especially acute since rapid growth in the American commercial space sector is likely to further exacerbate the space debris problem. New technology advancements mean that it is cheaper than ever to manufacture and launch new satellites. Additionally, recent improvements in rocket engineering and design provide more economical options for getting payloads into space. This changing cost environment means that the space industry is no longer monopolized by a select number of large, multinational companies. Instead, smaller businesses now face fewer barriers-to-entry for satellite deployment and have an equal opportunity to compete in the market. However, since space debris management is not yet fully regulated, this increased commercial activity means that more industries may be littering LEO in the near future.

America’s mounting demand for satellite-based services will congest LEO’s already crowded environment even further. The U.S. defense sector in particular requires further space resources due to their reliance on sophisticated communication and image-capturing capabilities. As a result, the Department of Defense (DOD) has started recruiting space industries to provide these services through increased satellite deployment in LEO. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted consumer demand for satellite-based internet. In response, space industries are racing to extend broadband access to rural areas and remote populations, an effort which the Biden Administration hopes to support through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. Overall, this combined demand for commercial satellite services from the American public and federal government means that more launches will occur in the years ahead and add to the ongoing debris issue.

The worsening congestion in outer space is a severe nuisance for America’s space industry. Floating trash in LEO creates an immediate physical barrier to commercial space activity. Rocket launches and payload delivery must first chart a safe flight that avoids collision with pre-orbiting objects, which, given the growing congestion in LEO, will only become more difficult in the future.

The space debris issue is also a serious security risk that may one day end in disaster. If space traffic becomes too dense, a single collision between two large objects could produce a cloud of thousands of small-scale debris. These fragments could, in turn, act as lethal missiles that hit other objects in orbit, thereby causing even more collisional debris. This cascade of destruction, known as the Kessler Syndrome, ultimately results in a scenario where LEO is saturated with uncontrollable projectiles that render further space launch, exploration, and development impossible. The financial, industrial, and societal consequences of this situation would be devastating. 

Space debris, especially debris resulting from collisions, is projected to grow significantly in the years ahead. Lines in this figure represent the number of trackable low-Earth orbit (LEO) objects (based on a NASA-based mathematical simulation). The blue line represents rocket bodies, spacecrafts, and other launch-related refuse that have not experienced breakups. The brown line represents debris resulting from explosions, which are caused by internal malfunctions of a given piece of equipment. The pink line represents debris resulting from two or more objects colliding with one another in orbit. (Source: Science Magazine)

If outer space is to remain a viable environment for development and industry, the space debris problem must be solved. NASA and other space agencies have shown that at least five to ten of the most massive debris objects must be removed each year to prevent space debris accumulation from getting out of hand. Orbital decay from atmospheric drag, the only natural space clean-up process, is insufficient for removing large-sized debris. In fact, orbital decay could compound problems posed by massive debris objects as surface erosion may cause wakes of smaller debris cast-offs. Therefore, cleanup and removal of massive debris objects must be done manually. 

According to the National Space Policy, the U.S. government can “develop governmental space systems only when it is in the national interest and there is no suitable, cost-effective U.S. commercial or, as appropriate, foreign commercial service or system that is or will be available.” As such, any future U.S. space cleanup program must actively involve the space industry sector to be successful. Such a program must create an environment where space debris removal is a competitive economic opportunity rather than an obligation. 

Presently, an industrial sector focused on space debris removal and recycling—including on-site satellite servicing, in-orbit equipment repair and satellite life extensions, satellite end-of-life services, and active debris removal—remains nascent at best. However, the potential and importance of this sector is becoming increasingly evident. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program seeks to cheaply recycle still-functioning pieces of defunct satellites and incorporate them into new space systems. Northrop Grumman, an American multinational aerospace and defense-technology company, as well as a number of other small and medium-sized U.S. businesses, have ongoing projects to build in-orbit recycling systems to reduce the costs and risks of new satellite launches. However, federal intervention is needed to rapidly stimulate further growth in this sector and to address the following challenges:

Plan of Action

To address the aforementioned challenges, multiple offices within the federal government will need to coordinate and support the American space industry. Specifically, they will need to create an advanced market commitment for space debris removal and recycling, using financial incentives and new regulatory mechanisms to support this emerging market. To achieve this goal, we recommend the following five policy steps:

Recommendation 1. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should collaborate to provide U.S. space industries with a standard means of identifying which satellites are viable for recycling once they have reached the end of their life cycle.

One reason why the satellite and large debris object recycling and removal industry remains small is because the market is small. The market can be grown by creating a verified system for satellite providers and operators to indicate that their equipment can be recycled or decommissioned by secondary service providers once a mission is completed. To encourage widespread use of this elective registration system, it will need to be incentivized and incorporated into ongoing satellite and rocket regulatory schemes.

Because federal authority over space activity has evolved over time, multiple federal agencies currently regulate the commercial space industry. The FCC licenses commercial satellite communications, the FAA licenses commercial launch and reentry vehicles (i.e., rockets and spaceplanes) as well as commercial spaceports, and NOAA licenses commercial Earth remote-sensing satellites. These agencies must collaborate to develop a standard and centralized registration system that promotes satellite recycling.

Industries will need incentives for opting into this registration system and for marking their equipment as recyclable and decommission-viable. With respect to the former, the recycling registration mechanism should be incorporated into federal pre-launch or pre-licensing protocols. With respect to the latter, the FCC, the FAA, and NOAA could:

Recommendation 2. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO), in coordination with the DOD’s Space Surveillance Network, should create a prioritized list of massive space debris items in LEO for expedited cleanup.

Rocket bodies, nonfunctioning satellites, and other large debris represent the highest percentage of overall orbital debris mass in LEO. Since these objects pose the highest risks of additional debris generation through collisions and decay, reducing their stay in LEO is a priority. However, given the continuous generation of space debris and sometimes uncertain or tenuous ownership of older debris items, the federal government needs to create a public and regularly updated “large-debris criticality” index. This index would give large debris items a risk-assessment score based on (i) their ability to generate additional debris through erosion or collision, (ii) the feasibility of their removal, (iii) their ownership status, and (iv) other risk factors. Objects that were put into orbit before NASA ODPO issued its standard debris mitigation guidelines need to be assessed retroactively.

By creating and regularly updating this public index, the federal government would make it easier for public and private actors alike to identify which debris items need to be prioritized for cleanup, what risks are involved, and what technology may be required for successful removal.

Recommendation 3. The Space Force, in collaboration with the Department of Commerce (DOC), should fund removal and/or recycling of a set number of large debris objects each year, thereby creating a reliable market for space debris removal.

By committing to fully or partially fund the NASA-recommended removal of five to ten large debris items each year, the Space Force and the DOC would lower the risk of business entry into the orbital debris removal market and create a sustained market economy for space debris mitigation. The specific monetary reward offered by these agencies for debris removal could be commensurate with the nature and size of the debris item, the speed of removal, and the manner of removal. An additional payout could be offered for the removal of a high-priority large debris item (e.g., an item identified in Recommendation 2 above), or for debris removal that is done sustainably (e.g., in ways that recycle or reuse parts and do not generate secondary, smaller debris).

Recommendation 4. The Space Force – Space Systems Command should coordinate with NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program to issue a satellite design-based grand challenge aimed at facilitating future satellite recycling efforts.

Grand challenges are popular and often effective tools for stimulating public interest in a given issue and advancing technologies. However, they can fall short of creating a sustainable, long-lasting commercial industry. The Space Force and NASA can overcome this difficulty by designing a grand challenge wherein: (i) research and development costs are shared among private and public participants; (ii) multiple winners are selected at the end of the challenge; (iii) winners are chosen based on whether they meet government capability thresholds in addition to being commercially viable; and (iv) challenge winners are guaranteed a long-term government service contract.

For this grand challenge, Space Force and NASA should encourage the creation and, afterwards, widespread commercial use of satellite design strategies that facilitate satellite recycling, mission extension, or deconstruction. Specifically, the design challenge should focus on:

Recommendation 5. NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce, in conjunction with the Space Force and NASA’s ODPO, should jointly issue an annual research report outlining risk, cost-benefit analyses, and the economics of orbital debris removal and recycling. 

For the growing number of debris recycling and satellite maintenance industries, large orbital debris represent a potential source of valuable materials and resources. While it is theorized that repurposing or salvaging these large debris objects may be more cost effective than de-orbiting them, exact costs and benefits are often unspecified. Additionally, the financial repercussions of accumulating space debris and collisions are largely unknown. 

If industries know the upfront expenses and potential profit of space debris removal, the debris removal market will be far less risky and more lucrative. NASA, NOAA, and the Space Force can fill that information gap by collaboratively creating better tools to assess both the risk and costs posed by orbital debris to future uses of space, including commercial development and investment. 


For America’s space industry to grow to its full potential, end-of-life satellites and other orbiting dead equipment need to be cleared from Earth’s lower orbit. Without removing these items, the increasing possibility of a severe in-orbit collision poses a major security risk to civilian, military, and commercial infrastructure providers. By creating an advanced market commitment for recycling and de-orbiting large-sized debris items, the federal government does more than just address the growing space debris problem. It also creates a new market for the U.S. space industry and stimulates further economic growth for the country. Additionally, it encourages greater public-private collaboration as well as consistent communication between crucial offices within the U.S. government.

Frequently Asked Questions
Outer space is governed by international law. Why can’t the United Nations (UN) or other international space agencies handle the space debris issue? Why should the U.S. government act?

Global space governance is very complicated since no single country has a right to this territory. As such, space activity is broadly guided by UN treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979. While these treaties establish important guidelines for the peaceful use of space, they fail to address important present-day concerns, such as governing space debris and private industry activity. Thus, these treaties are not fully able to guide modern challenges in space commercialization. It is also important to note that it took nearly ten years for diplomats to reach an agreement and ratify these treaties. Therefore, the timeline needed to either revisit outer space treaties or craft new ones is too slow to fully match the breakneck speed at which space activity is developing today. Given the U.S. space industry’s influential role in shaping behaviors and norms in outer space, addressing the space debris problem effectively will require the U.S. space industry sector’s involvement.

What is at stake—how much is the U.S. space industry worth?

In 2018, the FAA estimated the value of the U.S. space industry at approximately $158 billion. Since then, the space economy has continued to grow, largely due to a record period of private investment and new investor opportunities in spaceflight, satellite, and other space-related companies. As a result, the space industry was valued at $424 billion in 2019. By 2030, it is believed that the space industry will be one of the most valuable sectors of the U.S. economy, with a projected value of between $1.5 and $3 trillion.

Why is the American space industry growing so quickly?

It all has to do with cost. Mounting competition among private space companies means it is cheaper than ever to launch equipment into space, which creates numerous opportunities for businesses to meet the ever-increasing need for alternative supply chain routes and satellite-based internet connectivity.

From 1970–2000, the cost of launching a kilogram of material into space remained fairly steady and was determined primarily by NASA. When NASA’s space shuttle fleet was in operation, it could launch a payload of 27,500 kilograms for $1.5 billion($54,500 per kilogram). Today, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket advertises a cost of just $62 million to launch 22,800 kilograms ($2,720 per kilogram). In other words, commercial launch has reduced the cost of getting a satellite into LEO by a factor of 20. Additional developments in reusable rocket technology may decrease that cost to just $5 million in the future. Improvements in satellite technology and mass production will further cut costs and make more launches possible. It is projected that satellite mass production techniques could decrease launch cost from $500 million per satellite to $500,000.

Decreasing costs lead to increasing rocket and satellite launch rates and, hence, to increasing accumulation of space debris.

If two pieces of space junk are going to collide, can’t you just make them move?

If the satellites in question are active, fully functioning, and capable of maneuvering, then to an extent—yes. Satellites can be remotely programmed to change course and avoid a collision. Even under these circumstances, though, these objects adhere to the laws of physics; it can take a lot of energy to alter their orbit to avoid a crash. As such, most satellite operators require hours or days to plan and execute a collision avoidance maneuver.

Not all active equipment is capable of maneuvering, though; there is no way to control objects that are inactive or dead. So, orbiting debris are uncontrollable.

Is there air traffic control in outer space?

To date, there is no official or internationally recognized “Space Traffic Control” agency. Within the U.S., responsibility for space traffic surveillance is shared among numerous government agencies and even some companies.

Why is recycling and decommissioning in-orbit satellites so difficult?

Satellites and rockets are not designed for disposal; they’re designed to withstand the tremendous aerodynamic forces, heat, drag, etc. experienced when exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore, many satellites are built with reinforcements to maintain orbit and withstand minor collisions with space debris. Hence, breaking down, recycling, and fixing satellites in space is currently very challenging.

Why does this memo focus on LEO? Isn’t space debris a problem at other orbits and distances too?

LEO is defined as the area close to Earth’s surface (between 160 and 1,000 km). This territory is especially viable for satellites for several reasons. First, the close distance to Earth means that it takes less fuel to station satellites in orbit, making LEO one of the cheapest options for space industries. Second, LEO satellites do not always have to follow a strict path around Earth’s equator; they can instead follow tilted and angled orbital paths. This means there are more available flight routes for satellites in LEO, making it an attractive territory for space industries. As a result, most satellites and, by consequence, the majority of satellite junk is located in LEO. (See first image in Challenge and Opportunity of littered satellites).

8. Why focus on large space debris, like defunct satellites and rocket cast-offs? What about smaller debris?

Smaller debris do outnumber larger debris in outer space. According to NASA, there are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble (up to 0.4 inches, or 1 centimeter), and approximately 100 million pieces of debris that are about .04 inches (or 1 millimeter) and larger. Micrometer-sized (0.000039 of an inch in diameter) debris are even more abundant. These small-sized space debris may be traveling upwards of 17,500 mph, meaning they can do massive amounts of damage during collisions.

Clearly (see image below), small debris are also a significant security risk and should be included in space debris cleanup considerations. However, an inability to track small-scale debris orbits, the specific challenges in “catching” these small, high velocity objects, and a significant lack of reliable information on small-sized space debris means that this aspect of space debris mitigation will likely require its own unique policy actions.

We presently have more data on large-sized debris, and these items pose the greatest threat to ongoing space efforts, should they collide. Therefore, this memo focuses on policy actions targeting these debris items first.

Averting Environmental Risks in the New Space Age

We face an existential crisis: Space is at risk of developing the equivalent of the ocean’s “drifting island of plastic.” Air, space, and light pollution now present looming environmental threats created by the launch of new “mega-constellations” of thousands of satellites in the part of space near Earth called “Low Earth Orbit” (LEO). A “take risks and fail often” approach to new technology has been extended to space without consideration of the fact that mistakes in space cannot be cleaned up like they can on Earth.

In 2019, a European Earth observation satellite came dangerously close to colliding with a newly launched mega-constellation satellite, having to perform a last-minute maneuver to avoid the satellite, whose operator did not respond to attempts to contact it. As the number of satellites in congested orbits increases exponentially, close calls like this are becoming more commonplace. And we are seeing an unexpected number of these satellites fail such that they do not even have the ability to try to avoid dangerous collisions. As the movie Gravity illustrated, a collision in space can set off a chain reaction of further collisions, potentially destroying or disabling satellites and spreading large amounts of dangerous space junk. The recent introduction of thousands of satellites in LEO is also creating light and radio-frequency pollution that impairs the once-clear access to the cosmos for critical scientific-based research. Indifferent to these serious environmental issues, and largely unregulated, mega-constellation operators are rushing to launch as many satellites as possible before new rules are put in place.

The Biden-Harris Administration should direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fully examine and address these critical environmental issues before the United States authorizes thousands more LEO satellites in mega-constellations. Three concrete steps are warranted: (i) determine the aggregate impact of all mega-constellations, (ii) conduct a thorough review of these “unprecedented” new uses of space under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and (iii) adopt new rules that consider the full environmental impacts of mega-constellations before they are launched. In this regard, the Biden-Harris Administration should consider either (i) issuing an Executive Order instructing the FCC and the FAA to evaluate the environmental consequences associated with mega-constellations before permitting their launch or deployment, or (ii) proposing legislation that requires the FCC and the FAA to do the same.

Action — or inaction — by the Biden-Harris Administration will set the standard on which the global space industry will base its next design choices. Unless we act now, we may find that, as with climate change, we wish we had acted much sooner.

Challenge and Opportunity

Space near Earth is both a limited and a shared resource — a ”commons” that must be protected. Currently, as leading experts recognize, certain satellite operators do not have an economic incentive to protect shared resources. The same is true for our atmosphere and our night sky. 

These threats have developed because of recent changes in the marketplace and commercial cost/safety tradeoffs that have negative environmental impacts. 

Many recent technological advances have eliminated the high cost of access to space that once fostered a responsible space ecosystem, and limited the number of objects in space. Previously, the rules to manage the risks were adequate. That is no longer the case. Today, self-interest and the public good are quickly diverging, as the cost of failure to an individual actor is far, far less than the collective risk of multiple individual failures — a long-anticipated “tragedy of the commons” in space. 

One example is the needless choice of using large numbers of economically expendable satellites that have high negative environmental impacts, when fewer and more reliable satellites can achieve the same goals without those impacts. This threat to the commons both in space and here on Earth is manifested in the many thousands of LEO satellites being launched into space, with one company alone planning to launch over 40,000 satellites in the near future. By comparison, mankind has launched only about 9,000 satellites total since space exploration began seven decades ago. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and national regulatory filings indicate that around 100,000 LEO satellites could be launched in the coming decade. Indeed, the FCC has authorized or received applications for constellations that will consist of about 100,000 LEO satellites operating at any given time, and when expected replacements are factored in, many multiples of that number will launch and ultimately vaporize in the atmosphere over a 15-year license term.

A leading provider of collision-threat analysis tools has notionally depicted the scale of the satellite constellations expected to deploy in LEO over this decade, in the following figure:

Figure 1: Illustrative LEO Constellation Deployment (2017-2029)
Figure 1: Illustrative LEO Constellation Deployment (2017-2029)

From S. Alfano, D. Oltrogge, R. Shepperd, “Leo Constellation Encounter and Collision Rate Estimation: An Update.” 2nd IAA Conference on Space Situational Awareness (ICSSA), Washington, D.C., January 14-16, 2020, 

Mega-constellations in LEO raise a number of significant environmental threats:

Polluting Our Air and Affecting Climate Change

Mega-constellations are designed so their defunct satellites reenter the atmosphere and vaporize, releasing chemical compounds, including aluminum oxides. The Aerospace Corporation (an advisor to the U.S. Space Force) reports that this massive increase in the number of satellites reentering the atmosphere and releasing chemical compounds and particles could contribute to climate change through radiative forcing and ozone depletion.1 Most of the reentering mass vaporizes into small particles consisting of a “zoo of complex chemical types.” The stratosphere where this pollution gathers is home to the fragile ozone layer that protects the Earth from UV radiation.

None of these risks is currently being examined, or even considered, by the FCC as the United States authorizes mega-constellations to serve the United States. Authorization includes permission for initial deployment and the subsequent deployment of an unlimited number of replacement satellites over a license term in the case of U.S.-licensed systems, and, in the case of constellations licensed by other Administrations, permission to serve the United States with those constellations.

Polluting Space

The operation of large numbers of LEO satellites in mega-constellations significantly raises the risk of collisions in space. This is particularly true when those satellites do not retain a high level of reliable maneuverability for as long as they remain in orbit. Satellites that cannot maneuver cannot avoid collisions with other satellites or the large amounts of lethal space junk already in LEO orbits. The resulting collisions can be catastrophic—fragmenting the satellite into thousands of pieces on new space junk that spread into and impact orbits hundreds of kilometers above and below the collision. This new space junk essentially becomes high-speed, unguided missiles that pose a collision risk to other satellites.2

The following figure from the European Space Agency depicts the growing number of space objects in the LEO region (2000 km and below).3 A significant portion of recent increases is attributable to LEO satellites themselves, as well as the fragmentation of those satellites after collisions.3

Collisions can have a devastating impact, sending large clouds of high-speed shrapnel-like space junk into surrounding orbits. This space junk can disable or destroy other satellites that are critical for connectivity, mapping, weather, and defense purposes — and it can persist for decades and even a century or more, making access to space riskier and more expensive. Thus, satellites in mega-constellations that fail or degrade such that they can no longer be reliably maneuvered while they remain in orbit present undue risks to space and everyone who seeks to utilize space. Of great concern are the cost/safety tradeoffs being made in mega-constellation designs that value low-cost, economically expendable satellites over constellations with fewer and more reliable satellites. Making that tradeoff reduces the likelihood of successfully maneuvering to avoid collisions.

Under current policies, mega-constellations continue to be authorized by the FCC under risk standards that were developed for single satellites and that are wholly inadequate for megaconstellations. Today, the FCC seeks to ensure that the risk of a single satellite colliding with another space object is less than one in 1,000 for the expected lifetime of that satellite. That approach does not consider the additive risk from each satellite in a mega-constellation and the unlimited number of replacements that could be launched over a 15-year license term. This would allow for catastrophic collisions very frequently, as depicted below:

Table A: Application of Current Approach to Collision Risk
# of Satellites in OrbitAllowed Mean Time Between Collisions in Years
10,0000.5 (180 days)
50,0000.1 (36 days)
100,0000.05 (18 days)

When even a single collision can have devastating effects, effectively sanctioning many collisions is simply an untenable policy. Collision risk scales with LEO constellation size and the number of LEO constellations, and this aggregate risk is not being considered in the current authorization process. Moreover, the tools the FCC uses today to evaluate collision risk do not factor in a number of relevant risks, including:

If mega-constellations are allowed to continue to deploy without a full and complete analysis of these issues and the adoption of suitable mitigation measures, competition and innovation in space may come to a standstill. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) calls the deployment of mega-constellations a “game changer” and warns of the prospect for a never-ending spiral of collisions that would eventually render LEO unusable and possibly impenetrable — foreclosing access to and innovation in space for generations.

Polluting Dark and Quiet Skies 

Mega-constellations present threats to ongoing critical scientific research in the fields of optical astronomy and radio astronomy. The question of how these threats should be mitigated has not yet been resolved. They include three types of interference: (i) satellites in the night sky reflecting sunlight that interferes with optical research telescopes; (ii) artificial radio wavelength emissions that interfere with radio telescopes; and (iii) light pollution that impacts naked eye viewing of the night sky. Indeed, the disruptive nature of the growing number of mega-constellation trails in the night sky is evident from a variety of reports. Nevertheless, the effect of fully-deployed mega-constellations on the visibility of the night sky and on professional astronomical observations has not been adequately considered as a policy matter. 

The threats of mega-constellations to critical astronomy-based scientific endeavors were recently addressed by a leading group of experts under the auspices of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which included the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the International Astronomical Union, among others. Their recent report and recommendations emphasize that “[c]utting edge astronomical discoveries can only continue on the basis of an unobscured and undisturbed access to the cosmic electromagnetic signals,” and detail why mega-constellations are a threat to astronomy. As the report explains in detail, further work to mitigate the adverse impacts of LEO mega-constellations is urgently needed, and appropriate limits must be adopted and enforced by individual national governmental authorities. 

Tragically, there is no apparent systematic means for addressing these matters in the United States. Historically, these threats have not been addressed by the FCC in authorizing the deployment and operation of LEO mega-constellations. In fact, some mega-constellation proponents have asserted that the FCC does not even have jurisdiction over the “visibility of satellites,” and have resisted calls for the FCC to fulfill its statutory obligation under NEPA, and consistent with standing Executive Orders, to examine the environmental impact of deploying thousands of satellites.

Plan of Action

As the Biden-Harris Administration sets its agenda, protecting the environment in space and on Earth and keeping space accessible for all should be of utmost importance and an immediate priority. 

The last Administration recognized that these operators have little incentive to protect the “commons” that is our environment, but still failed to act. Indeed, the prior Administration allowed more mega-constellation satellites to be launched while it said it would consider new rules that remain unadopted. The Biden-Harris Administration should chart a new course.

First, the Biden-Harris Administration should immediately cease the existing practice of authorizing constituent parts of an individual mega-constellation without considering the aggregate impact of (i) all of the parts of that constellation, (ii) all of the other megaconstellations that are authorized or in the process of being authorized, and (iii) other megaconstellations that are likely to be developed and deployed as a natural response to the lack of regulatory oversight. 

Second, the Biden-Harris Administration should order a thorough review of the environmental threats caused by each of these unprecedented new uses of space, including consideration of suitable mitigation techniques such as meeting the same objectives with fewer and more capable satellites. In this regard, the Biden-Harris Administration should consider either (i) issuing an Executive Order instructing the FCC and the FAA to evaluate the environmental consequences associated with megaconstellations before permitting their launch or deployment, or (ii) proposing legislation that requires the FCC and the FAA to do so. Such an Executive Order would be consistent with the Carter Administration’s prior directive that federal agencies evaluate major actions significantly affecting the environment of the global commons.  

Third, the Biden-Harris Administration should adopt rules that require that the total impact of a mega-constellation be considered before providing authorization to launch from or serve the United States. Indeed, acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has recognized that “this rush to develop new space opportunities requires new rules. Despite the revolutionary activity in our atmosphere, the regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape these efforts are dated.” Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel has also warned that the FCC’s history of approving LEO constellations without addressing these risks means the U.S. will be “junking up our skies” if we do not move faster in adopting new rules.22 Operators should be required to provide sufficient assurances at the application stage about how they will mitigate those impacts. Periodic “health checks” should be conducted to ensure operators are living up to their commitments, and when they do not, the Biden-Harris Administration should take appropriate action, including freezing authority for further launches.

Early Prevention is Critical

While there are a number of important steps needed to manage these issues, the most critical step is to prevent more harm before it occurs, by addressing these issues at the application stage, where US agencies authorize the deployment of satellites. 

For decades, the FCC has been the agency authorizing the deployment and operation of commercial satellites, and their ability to serve the United States. In that role, the FCC has also for decades addressed the safe flight of commercial satellites and the potential for them to contribute to the space junk problem. The FCC is also mandated by statute to factor in public interest considerations that are not within the charter of other agencies. The FCC has had a rulemaking proceeding on safe flight and space junk issues pending for over two years.4 More generally, the FCC is also obligated to consider the requirements of NEPA and implement directives and orders as to the environmental impact of FCC actions. 

Other agencies study or oversee different aspects of these issues. For example, the FAA authorizes the launch of satellites from U.S. soil and is obligated to consider NEPA in that context. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has studied the effects of space junk on the long-term sustainability of physical access to space but has not addressed: (i) the risks associated with space junk disrupting vital communications networks in the near term, (ii) the impact on Earth of a steady stream of thousands of satellites vaporizing and polluting our atmosphere, or (iii) the disruptions to ongoing scientific research that mega-constellations create. 

Congress, industry leaders and other experts have recognized the need for increased awareness of the growing number of trackable objects in space. It is apparent that this challenging task only becomes more difficult as space fills up with more uncontrollable space junk. To date, the Department of Defense has had a lead role in this task. More recently, there have been calls by Congress and others in the industry to bring this mandate under the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce. OSC would be charged with collecting space situational awareness data from government, foreign and commercial sources as well as with developing a space traffic management function to prevent operational satellites from colliding with space junk. This function is incredibly important, and it must be facilitated by ensuring that operators are building, deploying and operating satellite systems in a manner that minimizes the chance of collisions and creating increased space junk in the first place.

We should also work closely with our international allies to put rules in place that ensure safe and shared access to space, a clean atmosphere, and a dark and quiet night sky. The United Nations’ COPUOS and UNOOSA have started to address some of these issues, but the existing UN COPUOS guidelines on space junk were adopted over 13 years ago, before the New Space Age. They do not address the risks presented by mega-constellations that the FCC has recently acknowledged or the environmental harms discussed above. Moreover, these guidelines are not legally binding. Under the leadership of UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, we should ensure there is international action in this area and shared responsibility regarding space and Earth. 

Of course, any guidance at the multinational level must be applied and enforced at the national level to be effective. Recent reports from OECD and the COPUOS working group emphasize the need for a national-level focus on the environmental threats created by mega-constellations. The United States (through the FCC) must implement rules for the licensing of commercial satellites and otherwise address the environmental threats posed by mega-constellations to ensure that US companies, government agencies, and scientists have continued safe and reliable shared access to these finite resources. 

The Biden-Harris Administration has already demonstrated its commitment to science-based policymaking and to the environment. That initiative should include a rigorous examination of the environmental threats posed by mega-constellations to our shared resources in space and here on Earth. The U.S. should lead in establishing sustainable environmental policies in the New Space Age — not continue existing practices that perpetuate the current reckless rush to fill space with mega-constellations before suitable rules and policies can be put in place. If the Biden-Harris Administration acts expeditiously, America can get in front of these threats and lead the world.


The standard the Biden-Harris Administration sets today with respect to mega-constellations — whether by action or inaction — is what the global satellite industry will soon follow. It is unquestionable that mega-constellations pose a variety of significant environmental threats, and that NEPA requires these issues to be fully examined. By instituting and applying high standards for environmental protections, the Biden-Harris administration can ensure our shared space resources are used safely and in a manner that limits environmental harm both in space and on Earth.

Frequently Asked Questions
Satellites are not new – why should this be an early priority for the administration?

A new and very different use of space is occurring in the form of constellations of thousands, or even tens of thousands, of satellites in the part of space nearest Earth, and known as “Low Earth Orbit” (LEO), which is already congested with space objects. These “mega-constellations” are considered “game changers” and even their proponents describe these proposals as “unprecedented” in nature.5 These mega-constellations are being advanced without a full evaluation on the environmental costs they impose, and without regard for whether the same objectives could be achieved in a more environmentally friendly manner — or if the missions to be served by these mega-constellations are in fact worth the environmental consequences. Leading third parties have detailed the expected environmental harms from these megaconstellations: air pollution, space pollution, and light and radio-frequency pollution.6 Mistakes in space cannot be cleaned up like they can on Earth. It would be common sense to prevent junking up space in the first place. Moreover, decisions made — or not made — during the course of this year as more mega-constellations satellites are approved for deployment will set the standard for the global space industry and the design of additional satellite constellations in LEO.

Are there sufficient environmental impacts on Earth to warrant environmental review?

Yes. The vaporization of mega-constellation satellites when they deorbit and reenter the atmosphere releases chemical compounds that could contribute to climate change through, among other things, radiative forcing and ozone depletion.7 That process poses a new source of air pollution in the form of small particles comprising “a zoo of complex chemical types” that will “form around an 85-kilometer altitude, then drift downward, accumulating in the stratosphere…”8 The stratosphere where this pollution gathers is home to the fragile ozone layer that protects the Earth from UV radiation.9 Scientists anticipate that the fact that these pollutants are directly injected into the uppermost layers of the atmosphere (top down) means that they can cause significantly greater harm than pollutants that emanate from Earth (bottom up).

Particularly under these circumstances where many experts have issued calls to arms about the significant environmental effects of mega-constellations, there is no excuse for turning a blind eye by failing to conduct an environmental review. A key purpose of NEPA is to ensure that agencies look before they leap, particularly when presented with previously unanticipated circumstances that may have a significant environmental effect.10

Could the space industry be naturally incentivized to operate responsibly in space?

The FCC has long recognized the lack of economic incentives for individual actors to act responsibly with respect to the shared resource that is space.11 Changes in the space industry have eliminated the incentives to achieve safe-space operations that previously existed.12 The cost of launch has dropped precipitously, reducing the cost of access to space. Economies of scale that enable small, inexpensive payloads are driving investment in inexpensive and economically expendable satellites. When the cost of space access is high, self-interest motivates high standards of care because the cost of failure is high. The term “space-qualified” once meant the industry’s highest standards for quality and reliability, even in the harsh conditions of space. Those high costs once fostered a safe space ecosystem: the number of objects in space was limited, and the rules to manage the risks were adequate. With economic barriers gone, self-interest and the public good are quickly diverging. The cost of failure to an individual actor is far, far less than the collective risk of multiple individual failures — a long-anticipated “tragedy of the commons” in space.

Is this a choice between better broadband and a clean environment?

Not at all. Many different advances in satellite technology over the past several years are providing significant increases in both broadband speeds and capacity for consumers. Satellite operators have proposed systems with fewer, more reliable satellites that can achieve the same objectives as mega-constellations, and without high levels of negative environmental impacts.

Professor Andy Lawrence, author of Losing the Sky, recently said it best: “Giving people better Internet, and keeping Capitalism healthy and competitive, is quite possible without thousands of low orbit satellites. Why should we accept arbitrary degradation and pollution when it’s not even necessary?”13 Particularly when experts, including the FCC, recognize that many satellite operators do not have a natural incentive to protect common natural resources (space, the atmosphere, Earth) for the benefit of others, it is essential to adopt regulations and licensing approaches that ensure we can both have access to the most advanced technology and also maintain a safe and clean environment. Many options exist, and the number and reliability of satellites in a LEO constellation is a design choice that companies can make to ensure that consumers have both better broadband and assurances of a safe and clean environment.

Aren’t LEO orbits the safest place to operate?

There is no direct correlation between the altitude at which a LEO satellite system operates and the risk of collision involving that system. A number of factors come into play in assessing safety, including the density of objects in a given orbit. Some orbits are denser than others, meaning that satellites and space junk are less dispersed. In fact, “the most crowded section is between 500 and 1000 km up. It’s the densest region, it’s the Highway 401 of space.”12 Then you have to consider the defunct satellites and space junk in higher orbits that will naturally deorbit through lower orbits and create collision risks. The scale of a given constellation (number of satellites) and its design are also major factors in assessing collision risk.

Aren’t LEO orbits naturally “clean”?

Satellites that cannot maneuver cannot avoid collisions. And when they do collide, even collisions at 550 km would pollute orbits many hundreds of kilometers above and below, with large fields of fast-moving shrapnel-like space junk that would traverse other orbits for decades or a century, as well as impair use of those orbits and harm many other users of space. Furthermore, having satellites in lower orbits does not solve the atmospheric pollution issue. And as leading experts explain, mega-constellation satellites in low orbits are most visible when most ordinary people are looking at the sky, as well as when key optical astronomical observations need to take place.12 These satellites also can be visible all night in summer because of the relationship of the Sun to the Earth at that time of year.12 Moreover, interference with radio astronomy does not depend on the time of day because the glare of the interfering signals beams down all of the time.12

Why is this not a matter for an international body like the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs through the Outer Space Treaty?

To be sure, there is a role for international cooperation to ensure a clean atmosphere, safe and shared access to space, and a dark and quiet night sky. But only national regulators can ensure that actually occurs in how they fulfill their obligations regarding shared use of space in national licensing and policy-making decisions. Recent reports from OECD and the UN’s COPUOS working group emphasize the need for a national-level focus on the environmental threats created by mega-constellations.

Mixed Messages On Trump’s Missile Defense Review

President Trump personally released the long-overdue Missile Defense Review (MDR) today, and despite the document’s assertion that “Missile Defenses are Stabilizing,” the MDR promotes a posture that is anything but.

Firstly, during his presentation, Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan falsely asserted that the MDR is consistent with the priorities of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS’ missile defense section notes that “Enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.” (p.8) During Shanahan’s and President Trump’s speeches, however, they made it clear that the United States will seek to detect and destroy “any type of target,” “anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” either “before or after launch.” Coupled with numerous references to Russia’s and China’s evolving missile arsenals and advancements in hypersonic technology, this kind of rhetoric is wholly inconsistent with the MDR’s description of missile defense being directed solely against “rogue states.” It is also inconsistent with the more measured language of the National Security Strategy.

Secondly, the MDR clearly states that the United States “will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities needed to protect the homeland against rogue missile threats.” This is precisely what concerns Russia and China, who fear a future in which unconstrained and technologically advanced US missile defenses will eventually be capable of disrupting their strategic retaliatory capability and could be used to support an offensive war-fighting posture.

Thirdly, in a move that will only exacerbate these fears, the MDR commits the Missile Defense Agency to test the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM-class target in 2020. The 2018 NDAA had previously mandated that such a test only take place “if technologically feasible;” it now seems that there is sufficient confidence for the test to take place. However, it is notable that the decision to conduct such a test seems to hinge upon technological capacity and not the changes to the security environment, despite the constraints that Iran (which the SM-3 is supposedly designed to counter) has accepted upon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Fourthly, the MDR indicates that the United States will look into developing and fielding a variety of new capabilities for detecting and intercepting missiles either immediately before or after launch, including:

There exists much hype around the concept of boost-phase intercept—shooting down an adversary missile immediately after launch—because of the missile’s relatively slower velocity and lack of deployable countermeasures at that early stage of the flight. However, an attempt at boost-phase intercept would essentially require advance notice of a missile launch in order to position US interceptors within striking distance. The layer of space-based sensors is presumably intended to alleviate this concern; however, as Laura Grego notes, these sensors would be “easily overwhelmed, easily attacked, and enormously expensive.”

Additionally, boost-phase intercept would require US interceptors to be placed in very close proximity to the target––almost certainly revealing itself to an adversary’s radar network. The interceptor itself would also have to be fast enough to chase down an accelerating missile, which is technologically improbable, even years down the line. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report puts it very plainly: “Boost-phase missile defense—whether kinetic or directed energy, and whether based on land, sea, air, or in space—is not practical or feasible.” 

Overall, the Trump Administration’s Missile Defense Review offers up a gamut of expensive, ineffective, and destabilizing solutions to problems that missile defense simply cannot solve. The scope of US missile defense should be limited to dealing with errant threats—such as an accidental or limited missile launch—and should not be intended to support a broader war-fighting posture. To that end, the MDR’s argument that “the United States will not accept any limitation or constraint” on its missile defense capabilities will only serve to raise tensions, further stimulate adversarial efforts to outmaneuver or outpace missile defenses, and undermine strategic stability.

During the upcoming spring hearings, Congress will have an important role to play in determining which capabilities are actually necessary in order to enforce a limited missile defense posture, and which ones are superfluous. And for those superfluous capabilities, there should be very strong pushback.

An X reveals a Diamond: locating Israeli Patriot batteries using radar interference

Amid a busy few weeks of nuclear-related news, an Israeli researcher made a very surprising OSINT discovery that flew somewhat under the radar. As explained in a Medium article, Israeli GIS analyst Harel Dan noticed that when he accidentally adjusted the noise levels of the imagery produced from the SENTINEL-1 satellite constellation, a bunch of colored Xs suddenly appeared all over the globe.

SENTINEL-1’s C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) operates at a centre frequency of 5.405 GHz, which conveniently sits within the range of the military frequency used for land, airborne, and naval radar systems (5.250-5.850 GHz)—including the AN/MPQ-53/65 phased array radars that form the backbone of a Patriot battery’s command and control system. Therefore, Harel correctly hypothesized that some of the Xs that appeared in the SENTINEL-1 images could be triggered by interference from Patriot radar systems.

Using this logic, he was able to use the Xs to pinpoint the locations of Patriot batteries in several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Harel’s blog post also noted that several Xs appeared within Israeli territory; however, the corresponding image was redacted (I’ll leave you to guess why), leaving a gap in his survey of Patriot batteries stationed in the Middle East.

This blog post partially fills that gap, while acknowledging that there are some known Patriot sites—both in Israel and elsewhere around the globe—that interestingly don’t produce an X via the SAR imagery.

All of these sites were already known to Israel-watchers and many have appeared in news articles, making Harel’s redaction somewhat unnecessary—especially since the images reveal nothing about operational status or system capabilities.

Looking at the map of Israel through the SENTINEL-1 SAR images, four Xs are clearly visible: one in the Upper Galilee, one in Haifa, one near Tel Aviv, and one in the Negev. All of these Xs correspond to likely Patriot battery sites, which are known in Israel as “Yahalom” (יהלום, meaning “Diamond”) batteries. Let’s go from north to south.

The northernmost site is home to the 138th Battalion’s Yahalom battery at Birya, which made news in July 2018 for successfully intercepting a Syrian Su-24 jet which had reportedly infiltrated two kilometers into Israeli airspace before being shot down. Earlier that month, the Birya battery also successfully intercepted a Syrian UAV which had flown 10 kilometers into Israeli airspace.

The Yahalom battery in the northwest is based on one of the ridges of Mount Carmel, near Haifa’s Stella Maris Monastery. It is located only 50 meters from a residential neighborhood, which has understandably triggered some resentment from nearby residents who have complained that too much ammunition is stored there and that the air sirens are too loud.

The X in the west indicates the location of a Yahalom site at Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, where Israel conducts its missile and satellite launches. In March 2016, the Israeli Air Force launched interceptors as part of a pre-planned missile defense drill, and while the government refused to divulge the location of the battery, an Israeli TV channel reported that the drill was conducted using Patriot missiles fired from Palmachim air base.

Finally, the X in the southeast sits right on top of the Negev Nuclear Research Centre, more commonly known as Dimona. This is the primary facility relating to Israel’s nuclear weapons program and is responsible for plutonium and tritium production. The site is known to be heavily fortified; during the Six Day War, an Israeli fighter jet that had accidentally flown into Dimona’s airspace was shot down by Israeli air defenses and the pilot was killed.

The proximity of the Negev air defense battery to an Israeli nuclear facility is not unique. In fact, the 2002 SIPRI Yearbook suggests that several of the Yahalom batteries identified through SENTINEL-1 SAR imagery are either co-located with or located close to facilities related to Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The Palmachim site is near the Soreq Centre, which is responsible for nuclear weapons research and design, and the Mount Carmel site is near the Yodefat Rafael facility in Haifa—which is associated with the production of Jericho missiles and the assembly of nuclear weapons—and near the base for Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines, which are rumored to be nuclear-capable.

Google Earth’s images of Israel have been intentionally blurred since 1997, due to a US law known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment which prohibits US satellite imagery companies from selling pictures that are “no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.” As a result, it is not easy to locate the exact position of the Yahalom batteries; for example, given the number of facilities and the quality of the imagery, the site at Palmachim is particularly challenging to spot.

However, this law is actually being revisited this year and could soon be overturned, which would be a massive boon for Israel-watchers. Until that happens though, Israel will remain blurry and difficult to analyze, making creative OSINT techniques like Harel’s all the more useful.


Sentinel-1 data from 2014 onwards is free to access via Google Earth Engine here, and Harel’s dataset is available here.

Russia Images the LACROSSE Spysat

A Russian satellite tracking facility in Siberia has produced rarely-seen photographs of a U.S. intelligence satellite.

The U.S. Lacrosse radar satellite was captured in images generated at Russia’s Altay Optical Laser Center, apparently between 2005 and 2010. A selection of images was compiled and analyzed by Allen Thomson. See An Album of Images of LACROSSE Radar Reconnaissance Satellites Made by a 60 cm Adaptive Optics System at the G.S. Titov Altai Optical-Laser Center.

“The images contain enough information (range, angular scale) to perform a bit of technical intelligence (i.e., sophomore high school trigonometry) on the radar antenna size, which is a significant parameter affecting capability,” Mr. Thomson, a former CIA analyst, told Secrecy News.

While provocative, the intent of the imagery disclosure was obscure, he said.

“Why did the Russians release the images?  The US is highly paranoid about releasing resolved images of spysats, ours or others. The Russian paranoia is at least as great, so how did these images get out? What was the purpose?”

The images themselves seem to be mostly just a curiosity. But perhaps they underscore the growing visibility and the corresponding vulnerability of U.S. space-based assets.

“Our asymmetrical advantage in space also creates asymmetrical vulnerabilities,” said Gil Klinger, a defense intelligence official, last year. “Our adversaries recognize our dependence on space and continue to think of ways to respond to our space advantage.”

He testified at a 2014 House Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. national security space activities, the record of which has recently been published. Space protection, orbital debris, the industrial base and related topics were addressed.

Russia’s Altay Optical Laser Center was profiled by Mr. Thomson here.

Change at the United Nations

by: Alicia Godsberg

The First Committee of this year’s 64th United Nations General Assembly (GA) just wrapped up a month of meetings.  The GA breaks up its work into six main committees, and the First Committee deals with disarmament and international security issues.  During the month-long meetings, member states give general statements, debate on such issues as nuclear and conventional weapons, and submit draft resolutions that are then voted on at the end of the session.  Comparing the statements and positions of the U.S. on certain votes from one year to the next can help gauge how an administration relates to the broader international community and multilateralism in general.  Similarly, comparing how other member states talk about the U.S. and its policies can give insight into how likely states may be to support a given administration’s international priorities.

The Obama administration will certainly be looking in the near future for support on some of its new international priorities – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is happening in May, 2010 and the U.S. delegation will likely seek to promote certain non-proliferation measures, such as universal acceptance of the Additional Protocol and the creation of a nuclear fuel bank.[i] However, many states see these and other proposed non-proliferation measures as further restrictions on their NPT rights while the U.S. and the other NPT nuclear weapon states parties (NWS) continue to avoid adequate progress in implementing their nuclear disarmament obligation.  At the same time, other states with nuclear weapons continue to develop them (and the fissile material needed for them) with no regulation at all.  The United Nations (UN) is the court of world public opinion, a place where all member states have a voice.  If President Obama expects to win support for his non-proliferation agenda next May, he needs to win the GA’s support by showing that the U.S. is ready to engage multilaterally again and take seriously its past commitments and the concerns of other states.

While the U.S. continued to vote “no” on certain nuclear disarmament resolutions[ii], there were some noteworthy changes in the position of the new U.S. administration during this year’s voting.  One major shift away from the Bush administration’s voting through last year was a change to a “yes” vote on a resolution entitled, “Renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”  In fact, the U.S. also became a co-sponsor of this resolution.  The change in the U.S. position on the CTBT was likely an important factor in this reversal, as the resolution “urges” states to ratify the Treaty, something Bush opposed but the Obama administration strongly supports.  Similarly, the U.S. voted “yes” on the resolution entitled, “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” and for the first time all five permanent members of the Security Council joined this resolution as co-sponsors.

The change in the U.S. position on the CTBT was welcomed by many delegations on the floor.  Indonesia stated it would move to ratify the Treaty once the U.S. ratifies, and China has hinted at a similar position.  Non-nuclear weapon states have found the past U.S. position – that no new states should have nuclear weapons programs while the U.S. continues its own without any legal restrictions on the right to test nuclear weapons – to be hypocritical.  Add to this that the U.S. and other NWS have promised to work for the entry into force of the CTBT in the final documents of the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences, even using this promise as a way to get the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, and it may be that the CTBT is the sine qua non for the future of the NPT regime.

The U.S. delegation gave some strong signals that the Obama administration may be planning on decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. nuclear weapons (so-called “de-alerting”) in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  This speculation comes from remarks on the floor, when the sponsors of a resolution that had been tabled for the past two years entitled, “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems” stated they would not be tabling the resolution this year.[iii] The sponsors stated  that they would not be tabling the resolution because nuclear posture reviews were underway in a few countries and they hoped leaving the issue of operational readiness off the floor would, “facilitate inclusion of disarmament-compatible provisions in these upcoming reviews and help maintain a positive atmosphere for the NPT Review Conference.”  Apparently the U.S. delegation pushed to leave this resolution off the floor, not wanting to vote against it again while the NPR was underway.   Many took these political dealings as a sign that the Obama administration was pushing at home for a review of the operational readiness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. nuclear forces would be a welcome change in the U.S. nuclear posture, adding time for decision-making and deliberation during a potential nuclear crisis.  Such a change would also send an unambiguous signal to the international community that the U.S. was taking its nuclear disarmament obligation seriously, the perception of which is necessary for cooperation on non-proliferation goals in 2010 and beyond.

Another long-standing U.S. position apparently under review by the Obama administration relates to outer space activities.  The Bush administration spoke of achieving “total space dominance” and the U.S. has been against the multilateral development of a legal regime on outer space security for 30 years.  U.S. Ambassador to the CD Garold N. Larson spoke during the First Committee’s thematic debate on space issues, saying that the administration is now in the process of assessing U.S. space policy, programs, and options for international cooperation in space as part of a comprehensive review of space policy.  The U.S. delegation changed its vote on the resolution, “Prevention of an arms race in outer space” from a “no” last year to an abstention this year, and did not participate in a vote on a resolution entitled, “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space” due to the current review of space policy.  The U.S. message on outer space issues seemed to be that here too the new administration was looking to engage multilaterally instead of pursuing a unilateral agenda.

Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher mentioned another change in U.S. policy in her remarks to the First Committee – the support for the negotiation of an effectively verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT)[iv].  Previously, the Bush administration had removed U.S. support for negotiating an FMCT with verification protocols, stating that such a Treaty would be impossible to verify.  Without verification measures, which were part of the original Shannon Mandate[v] for the negotiation of an FMCT, many non-nuclear weapon states saw little value in negotiating the Treaty.  Further, because verification was part of the original package for negotiation, the Bush administration’s change was seen as dismissive of the multilateral process and a further example of U.S. unilateral action without regard for the concerns of other countries or the value of multilateral processes.  With the U.S. delegation stating that it supported negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT as called for under the original mandate, the Obama administration again showed a marked change from its predecessor and a willingness to engage in multilateralism.

What does all this mean?  President Obama stood before the world in Prague and pledged that the U.S. would work toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and has brought the issue of nuclear disarmament back to the forefront of international politics.  President Obama recognizes that the U.S. cannot work toward this vision alone – we have security commitments to allies that need to be addressed as the U.S. makes changes to its strategic posture and policy, there are other nuclear armed countries that need to have the same goal and work toward it in a safe and verifiable manner, and there is the danger of nuclear terrorism and unsecured fissile material that needs to be addressed by the entire global community.  In other words, the new administration recognizes the value in collective action to solve global problems, and at the 64th annual meeting of the UN General Assembly this year, the U.S. began putting some specific meaning behind President Obama’s general statements.  With a pledge to work toward ratifying the CTBT at home and to work for other ratifications necessary for the Treaty’s entry into force, a renewed commitment to negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT, and changes in long standing positions on outer space security and likely also on operational readiness of nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has shown the U.S. is back as a willing partner to the institutions of multilateral diplomacy.  More than anything, this change – if it turns out to be genuine – will help advance President Obama’s non-proliferation goals at the upcoming NPT Review Conference.  Of course the U.S. has internal battles to overcome, such as Senate ratification of the CTBT, but if promise and policy reviews are met with actions that can easily be interpreted by the rest of the world as genuine nuclear disarmament measures, President Obama has a greater chance to achieve an atmosphere of cooperation on U.S. non-proliferation goals at the upcoming NPT Review Conference in May, 2010.

[i] President Obama’s non-proliferation agenda was presented on May 5, 2009 to the United Nations by Rose Gottemoeller (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation) at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

[ii] A few of the nuclear disarmament-related resolutions the US voted “no” on were: Towards a nuclear weapon free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments; Nuclear disarmament; and Follow-up to nuclear disarmament obligations agreed to at the 1995 and 200 Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

[iii] The US had voted “no” on this resolution the past two years, joined only by France and the UK.

[iv] Ellen Tauscher mentioned that the US “looks forward to the start of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty” without further elaboration.  President Obama, unlike President Bush, has made clear that his administration supports an effectively verifiable FMCT.  For examples of this new policy direction, see:;; and

[v] Historical background on FMCT negotiations:

North Korea Launches Rocket but Satellite Fails

Despite a world of advice to the contrary, the North Koreans launched their Taepodong-2 or Unha rocket yesterday morning. Recent reports are that the first two stages operated correctly but the third stage failed. Reading between the lines a bit, it might have failed to ignite rather than exploding. This seems to be a replay of the Taepodong-1 test satellite launch attempt: In that case, both stages one and two seemed to operate properly but the third stage apparently exploded and the satellite never entered orbit. (That failure did not discourage the North Koreans, who announced that the whole thing was a great success and the satellite was up there. My bet is they will do the same thing this time.)

So was the test a failure? Not at all. The reason the world is worried about this test is not because we are worried about competition in the satellite launch business. (Good luck to them!) The world worries because the launcher the North Koreans used is a Taepodong-2, which most everyone believes is their next step up toward a long-range ballistic missile. By taking a warhead off and putting a small third stage and a satellite on top, they might call it a space launcher but the first two stages are exactly the same. The last time the configuration was tested, it exploded 40 seconds into its flight and that flight was a clear failure. No doubt, the North Koreans would have been happier this time with a little satellite up there broadcasting patriotic songs but everything they needed to test for a military missile appears to have worked in yesterday’s test. From the military perspective, the test at this point seems to have been largely successful, in that it demonstrated what needed to be demonstrated and the North Koreans got the information they needed to get.

Does this mean they have a missile that can reach the United States? Well, not really. This test is a big step forward for them but one test does not make a ballistic missile program. There is much more for them to do. We have no idea what they judge the accuracy of the missile and they have not tested an appropriate reentry vehicle. This missile test is an very unfortunate development. I wish the North Koreans had more finese. But it does not give them a ballistic missile capability yet.
Addendum: More information is coming it. Apparently, not only did the satellite fail to enter orbit, but the second stage fell short of the predicted impact area. That suggests that the second stage failed. It could even be that the third stage operated successfully–separated, ignited, guidance worked, and so forth–but without the proper speed and altitude provided by the second stage, it would have no chance of making orbit. If this turns out to be the case, then the conclusions above have to be modified and this is a more limited step forward for the North Korean Taepodong-2 program.

North Korea’s Teapodong-2 Unha Missile Launch: What might we learn?

Indications are that North Korea is moving ahead with its planned launch of a missile with the intent of placing a satellite into orbit. The North Koreans are portraying the launch in purely innocuous, civilian terms even naming the rocket “Unha,” which means “Milky Way” in Korean, to emphasize its space-oriented function. In the West, the rocket is called the Taepodong-2 and is thought to be a long-range (but not truly intercontinental range) ballistic missile.

Even if the rocket launches a satellite, and recent news reports say the payload sections seems to be shaped and sized for a satellite, it would be an important step in their military ballistic missile program. In the early days of the Soviet and American space programs, there was little distinction between military and civilian rocket development and the same would be true of North Korea’s upcoming launch. What I want to discuss in this essay is the question of how much can the outside world learn if the North Korean test goes through, what does it tell us about their ballistic missile capability?

According to the North Korean statements, the Kwangmyongsong-2, or Bright Star Light, satellite is a communications satellite. This is transparently nonsensical, of course. Most communication satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, far beyond the reach of the North Koreans. A single satellite in low Earth orbit will not be a useful communications satellite and I do not believe anyone is expecting the North Koreans to launch a whole constellation of satellites. Perhaps what they mean by a “communications satellite” is that the satellite will be communicating to us, not being used by people to communicate among themselves. According to North Korea, their last satellite, launched in August 1998, orbited the Earth continuously broadcasting the “immortal revolutionary” tune, “Song of General Kim Jung Il.” (This is consistent with the name, Kwangmyongsong or Bright Star Light or Bright Lode Star, is one of the innumerable sobriquets of Kim Jung Il.) Such a satellite never existed in fact. All reports from outside North Korea state that the last stage of the rocket exploded, destroying the satellite. United States Space Command has never tracked any object that could be the North Korean satellite and has detected no such transmission from space. (There is a musical precedent: The first Chinese satellite, which had the notable distinction of actually going into orbit, transmitted the tune, “The East Is Red.”)

The 1998 launch used a Taepodong-1 missile as the space launch vehicle (SLV). The Taepodong-1 is made up of a Nodong missile as a first stage with a Hwasong-6 missile as a second stage. (We should keep in mind that some North Korean missiles, such as the Nodong and Hwasong-6, have been produced in number and even exported so they are well characterized. The Taepodongs are different, they have never been successfully test flow and they are put together from other components. I am somewhat uncomfortable assigning them names as though they are production missiles; at this stage, each one might me a one-off. We shall see.) In the 1998 flight, a third stage was added to boost the small satellite into orbit. It was this additional third stage that apparently failed so the North Koreas could have got substantial and important data on the performance of the first two stages that would have made up the two stages of a military ballistic missile.

The Taepodong-2 was tested only once in 2006 and exploded about 40 seconds into its flight and it seems this upcoming launch is a retry of that failed test. The first stage of the Taepodong-2 appears similar to the Chinese CSS-2 missile. David Wright speculates that the first stage will have four Nodong engines operating together. A single Nodong serves as the second stage. The North Koreans have declared warning zones where the first and second stages are expected to impact. David Wright and Geoffrey Forden have worked backward from the announced splash down zones to see whether they are consistent with the presumed configuration of the Taepodong-2 and they check out.

It would be better for the world if the North Koreans did not go through with this test (perhaps the best outcome would be for the rocket to blow up a few seconds into its flight test—we can always hope) but if they conduct the test, the rest of the world might as well learn as much as we can from it and we can learn a lot.
The missile is being launched from the sort of launch pad that one would expect for a SLV. It is being assembled out in the open and the North Koreans are making no effort to hide the missile. The press has released some low resolution images but the United States, and others, have photo-satellites that can take much higher resolution images, perhaps seeing detail down to several centimeters. It is conceivable that the United States and perhaps others are bold enough to fly unmanned drones nearby to take even more detailed photographs. But unless a drone gets shot down, do not expect any public announcement from either side. So while we on the outside speculate about what the size and shape of the missile is, national intelligence services already know that before the missile even flies.

The missile will be tracked by radar—the Americans and Japanese have radar ships in the area and South Korean and Japanese will have ground-based radar—and this will provide a detailed, instant-by-instant record of the trajectory of the missile. That allows a calculation of the acceleration, which, in turn, allows us to calculate the ratio of the thrust to the weight of the rocket. If we knew one of those, we could then calculate the other and we will get to ways to determine the weight.

The rocket will accelerate and the rate of acceleration will increase because the thrust of the engines remains constant (some more advanced rockets do fancy things with throttling their engines but the North Koreans are probably not there yet) but the rocket is always getting lighter because it is burning up fuel all the time. So we do not know the weight of the rocket, or the thrust, or the fuel flow, but we can figure out all the ratios and some unknowns cancel out in the equations. By seeing how fast the acceleration changes, we can figure out one of the most important measures of rocket technology, the specific impulse. Specific impulse is the amount of “impulse” or total push (technically, momentum change) provided by a given amount of fuel. It is measured in newton-seconds/kilogram or, in English units, pound-seconds/pound. (Some American engineers cancel the pounds of force in the numerator and the pounds of mass in the denominator and report specific impulse in units of seconds, which makes any good physicist weep. And trust me, I will get tons of letters explaining how I am totally wrong and don’t understand specific impulse.) The specific impulse depends on the type of fuel, the efficiency of the combustion, and the maximum temperatures and pressures that the rocket engine can stand, all things that are technical challenges, making specific impulse a good measure of overall technical sophistication of a rocket builder.

Keep in mind that, for long-range rockets, the initial weight of the fuel is about 90% of the total weight, the structure—the tanks, engines, and so forth—are most of the remaining 10% and only a couple of percent of the total weight is payload. So when the rocket first takes off, the fuel is mostly lifting itself. So the efficiency of converting the fuel into thrust is critical; small changes in efficiency translate into large changes in payload that can be delivered to great distances.

As the first two stages separate, they will fall back to Earth. Radar will be able to track their trajectories as well and measure how they are decelerated by falling through the atmosphere. If we knew the drag coefficient of the stage, then, in principle, we could figure out the weight of the empty stage. The problem is that the stages will be tumbling in some complex way as they go down. Even so, by measuring the radar cross section at each instant, particularly at a variety of radar frequencies, and comparing measurements from more than one radar, a computer could develop a picture of how the stage tumbles and then calculate the air resistance and, from that, the weight of the empty stage. I do not know whether the accuracy is great enough to add to information that we would have from other sources, for example, based on knowledge of the Chinese CSS-2 missile. When the stage breaks up in the atmosphere, all bets are off but the first stage at least might hit the water intact. That raises the interesting possibility that pieces could be recovered but the predicted impact area is over very deep water.

Based on past North Korean practice, we know the general category of propellant the rocket uses but not the precise type. The oxidizer will be nitrogen tetroxide or nitric acid or some mixture of the two. The fuel could be kerosene or something more energetic, like dimethyl hydrazine. The two stages could use different propellants. I wondered whether, by observing the plume from the rocket, perhaps from space, and analysis of the spectra, it would be possible to determine the type of propellant. I discussed the idea with a couple of people and the consensus is that you could identify atomic species but not ratios. So the spectrum would reveal nitrogen, but not enough information to know that it came from nitric acid or hydrazine. In fact, the specific impulse will be a better indicator of the propellant type.

Remember that radar tracking gives us ratios, of weight to thrust, for example. If we had one, we could calculate the other but we cannot calculate payload mass directly. If this were a ballistic missile test, then the weight of the reentry vehicle could be determined by watching how it decelerated in the atmosphere. Then we could make a guess as to whether they could build a nuclear bomb within that size and weight. But this looks to be a satellite launch. Instead of a reentry vehicle, the rocket will have a small third stage that will push a small satellite into orbit. The payload ends up in a ballistic orbit in space where there is no air resistance (or very little). So a one kilogram satellite will follow the same trajectory as a thousand kilogram satellite. That is unfortunate, because if we knew how much the third stage weighed, or how much the rocket could launch into space, then we could calculate how far the rocket could throw a payload of any chosen weight. Because the payload ends up in space, we have to make some guesses about the weight.

Telemetry offers the potential for a great deal of information. By intercepting telemetry, we could get direct information on fuel flows and the like. Since the Taepodong-2 is still being developed—they have never had a successful launch—one would expect the North Koreans to have the rocket heavily instrumented and to transmit all those data back. They might do that but, in past flights, their telemetry has been quite limited.

Could the United States shoot the rocket down? Well, sort of. We do not have the capability to intercept the boosting rocket. But a satellite has to be boosted up to the point where it enters its orbit. (In fact, that is sort of the definition of the “orbit,” the point where the boosting stops and the object goes into an unpowered ballistic trajectory; if it is a ballistic trajectory that doesn’t later intercept the atmosphere, we call it an orbit.) The United States has already demonstrated that it can intercept low altitude satellites; lat year the Navy intercepted an old U.S. spy satellite in a decaying orbit. That was in some ways an easier target because the path could be calculated days in advance. While the North Korean satellite is still under power and being boosted up to orbit, it will not have a perfectly predictable path, making intercept complex but not impossible especially because, based on the predicted first and second stage impact areas, we can make a good guess about the flight path and the Aegis missile could be positioned to make an intercept of the third stage or the satellite before it reached final orbit. Note that this intercept would destroy the satellite, which is a stunt which is just a North Korean stunt anyway, but does not deny any information to the North Koreans about what they presumably really care about, a two-stage ballistic missile with military applications. So, intercept of the third stage might give the U.S. some macho pleasure but would not accomplish any military goal. (It would have political implications that I won’t even try to guess at.)

Does this mean that Aegis would work as an intercontinental ballistic missile defense? No, for several reasons, for example, a ballistic missile does not have to power the reentry vehicle up to orbit, the rockets burn for three to five minutes and the RV is on its way and the trajectory is pointing up rather than horizontally, quickly getting out of range of the Aegis.

Overall, the outside world will gather a lot of information about the Taepodong-2 as a ballistic missile based on this satellite test. We will not know the exact payload and range of the ballistic missile version but will certainly know a great deal more than we do now. Unfortunately, so will the North Koreans. Especially since their test of a nuclear explosive, this is a dangerous development.

U.S. Plans Test of Anti-Satellite Interceptor Against Failed Intelligence Satellite

The United States is planning to intercept a dying reconnaissance satellite with a missile launched from a Navy ship. The administration justifies the intercept on the basis of public safety. That is a long stretch, indeed, and thus far in the news coverage that I have seen there is virtually no mention of the political consequences of the United States’ conducting its first anti-satellite test in over two decades.

The United States, along with China, Russia, and other space-faring nations, should be working to ban anti-satellite weapons. Such a ban would work strongly in the best interests of the United States because we depend more, by far, than any other nation on access to space for our economy and security. Any measure that reduces the threats to satellites will enhance American security. The proposed test is a potential public relations bonanza, showing the public how a defensive missile can protect us from a—largely imaginary—danger from above. What follows is a simple analysis of what some of these dangers might be and a description of what might happen. These are questions that should have been asked of the administration.


Ensuring America’s Space Security

This report (PDF) analyzes eight threats to U.S. space assets and examines alternatives to weaponization and future policy recommendations

Download Full Report