Space is the new Wild West: It needs rules and sheriffs

Humans are filling the sky with satellites and tempted by the ore in asteroids. Will we destroy the final frontier?

The article has been published in Finnish in the 4/2022 issue of the Yliopisto magazine. 

Space is sometimes called the final frontier. Encounters with humans have not ended well for earlier frontier lands. Will we repeat our old mistakes once again?

It looks like it, according to Professor of Computational Space Physics Minna Palmroth (@MinnaPalmroth). It is easy to exploit and pollute space, as it does not belong to anyone.

Palmroth thinks that Earth’s orbits should be considered property. We should care for them and pass them down to future generations in good condition. If we cherish space, it has much to offer us.

“We are going through a transformation that resembles the Age of Discovery and colonisation. We have not even dreamt of all the ways to use space.”

Do we need a space police force?

Thousands of satellites swarm in orbit around Earth already. They transmit information on the state of our planet, help people navigate, and facilitate communication. Should they cease to function, we would be in serious trouble. This may happen with the increase of new and old satellites and the space debris they generate.

The number of satellites is not regulated. Elon Musk intends to launch tens of thousands of satellites into space to provide internet access globally. No one can protest Musk’s actions even though they will reduce others’ opportunities to send satellites into the same orbits.

“Traffic rules and police forces do not exist for space. In a way, space is like the Wild West,” Palmroth notes.

A faraway mine

Mineral extraction from celestial bodies looms a little further in the future. The ore-mineral concentration in asteroids is significantly higher than in Earth’s crust, where geological processes have spun heavier metals towards the inner parts of the planet.

Metals including nickel, platinum, palladium, and rhodium are found in asteroids. The Moon contains helium-3, the isotope used in fusion energy production.

“Society craves electronics. If everyone wants a smartphone and an electric car, the ore minerals in Earth’s crust will not be enough,” says Tomas Kohout (@AsteroidTom), University Researcher in Planetary Geophysics.

Solar energy demands significant amounts of battery minerals as well. If we intend to replace fossil fuels, mining operations will intensify. Once humanity has exhausted the resources from recycling and poorer deposits, our gaze will turn toward space.

Asteroids are unique

Asteroid mining may become profitable in the next few decades. It is an entirely different question whether they should be mined in the first place, Kohout points out.

“Destroying an asteroid is irreversible. The asteroid will no longer exist, and we will lose the information it contained. It’s like burning your book collection to keep the house warm.”

Asteroids are bodies orbiting the Sun that are smaller than planets. They have remained unchanged for billions of years. Each asteroid is different, like a piece in the solar system jigsaw puzzle.

The Moon was created from Earth and offers significant information on the early development of both bodies. Therefore, many countries wish to establish permanent bases on the Moon. However, structures on the Moon could be visible from Earth, perhaps even with the naked eye.

“Maybe we care more about the Moon than about asteroids, since it is our neighbour and we could see the changes with our own eyes,” Kohout muses.

On a collision course?

We will become a threat to asteroids if we one day decide to start mining them. However, asteroids pose a greater threat to us for now. They have caused several mass destructions, most notably the global disaster that led to the extinction of dinosaurs.

Kohout is involved in a joint program of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). The project investigates asteroid composition and how to adjust asteroid orbits, should one enter a collision course with Earth.

“There are no asteroids in sight the size of the one that killed the dinosaurs. However, smaller ones can hit us at any time. They can cause major destruction locally if they happen to strike a city.”

Mining asteroids involves risks. It could alter the orbit of the asteroid, moving it to a collision course with Earth. It would be safer to operate mines on remote asteroids, but travel costs make ones closer to Earth more attractive.

According to Kohout, space needs rules. The regulation of the Antarctic could provide a template. It includes a prohibition on mining.

“Perhaps it is time to discuss a new space treaty.”

Moral questions

The Outer Space Treaty of the United Nations was adopted in 1967. The treaty still includes some great elements, according to Jenni Tapio (@JenniTapio). Tapio heads the space team of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

The fundamental principles of the treaty provide the ground for the idea that space belongs to everyone, and that using space must not hinder others’ opportunities to use it.

In addition to the Outer Space Treaty, four other agreements have been drawn up. The first three focus on liability for damage caused by satellites, the rescue of astronauts, and the registration of objects launched into space. The last is a Moon agreement which only a handful of countries have ratified.

However, since the 1970s, states have been unable to agree on new legally binding rules for space activity.

Tapio represents Finland in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The committee contemplates the potential use of natural resources in space in the coming decades and the more distant future.

The strategic and geopolitical significance of space has grown. Some states perceive space as an arena for demonstrating their power. Tapio hopes that there will be room for diverse civilian use of space.

“If we at some point begin settling other planets, there will be several ethical and moral questions involved. Would it be right to terraform Mars and other planets to make them more suitable for humans?”

Tonnes of debris

Minna Palmroth heads the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research of Sustainable Space, which will send the Foresail-1 satellite into space in the summer. The satellite will measure radiation in space. The researchers also intend to test a plasma brake designed to bring the satellite back into the atmosphere.

Sustainable space technology means that satellites must withstand radiation and space weather and not disintegrate prematurely. Satellites must also be brought back down to Earth after completing their missions, instead of leaving them to jam orbits and collide with other objects.

Satellites in lower orbits will eventually fall and burn up in the atmosphere. Objects shot to higher orbits will remain there until the end of time unless removed.

Already, more than 8,000 tonnes of debris orbit Earth, moving at 7.5 kilometres per second – a speed at which even small particles can wreak havoc. A speck of paint hitting a solar panel would be equivalent to a stone thrown into a windscreen on the motorway. Accidents occur every week and close calls as many as 18,000 times per week.

How many satellites the sky can accommodate depends on their size and controllability. Declaring an orbit fully occupied at some point would require international cooperation on a joint policy.

“In practice, large states do what they want,” Palmroth laments.

Can we clean this up?

Removing old satellites that orbit Earth at higher altitudes is difficult – both technically and legally.

“ESA’s Envisat satellite is an object the size of a bus that cannot be contacted or controlled. The only way to get it down would be to fly to it, dock with it and guide it to the spacecraft cemetery in the Pacific Ocean,” Palmroth says.

As for smaller debris, the owner may be unknown. And everyone would not necessarily be happy about a cleaning team.

“Receiving the owner’s consent is uncertain. People use satellites for both civilian and defence purposes. Their materials are valuable, and they can also expose state secrets,” Jenni Tapio notes.

The United States, Russia, and China have used missiles to take apart their old satellites. The result is a multitude of small fragments that are increasingly difficult to clean up. Some have thrown satellites higher to so-called graveyard orbits. The solution is temporary, as these orbits also will eventually fill up.

Even the controlled landing of satellites is not without problems.

“As the number of satellites is growing at an exponential rate, the number of those destroyed in the atmosphere is growing as well. We should investigate what this does to the atmosphere,” Palmroth says.

Astronauts might be useless

Astronauts often personify space research as symbols of humanity pushing the limits of the unknown beyond. However, Tomas Kohout questions the function of astronauts:

“Do we need astronauts for anything? Let’s leave space to robots.”

Taking people into space is expensive and laborious, and a considerable strain on the environment compared to uncrewed spacecraft. Elsewhere in society, the trend is to replace humans with machines to carry out dangerous tasks. Space if anything is a hostile environment to humans, as it even tests astronauts’ health, who are in top condition.

“Some people think we must venture into space because Earth may not be viable in the future. Should we rather focus our efforts on keeping Earth viable?” Kohout asks.

Palmroth is not in favour of sending humans on voyages to space either. The funds would be more useful elsewhere in space research.

“Even after a nuclear holocaust, Earth would be a better place for humans than other planets. We must only take better care of it.”

Yliopisto is a science magazine published by the University of Helsinki that follows the CMM's Guidelines for Journalists.

Finland and space

Finland’s Act on Space Activities was enacted in 2018 to ensure the safety of activities in space.

The government grants permissions for new satellites and monitors compliance with related terms. For operators, the act provides clear rules and a stable operating environment.

Finland is responsible for Finnish activity in space. For example, if a Finnish satellite causes damage to another satellite or when making landfall, the state of Finland assumes primary liability. Subsequently, the state can charge the relevant operator to cover such costs.

At the moment, a total of 18 Finnish satellites that are recorded in the national registry of space objects orbit Earth.

“The rate of space traffic is on the rise, which requires management measures. The European Commission is designing a proposal on what to do about the situation. However, the problem is global and not solvable by Europe on its own,” says Jenni Tapio, who heads the space team of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

The application of international environmental law in space is not unproblematic. According to Tapio, it is helpful to appeal to fact that operators benefit from rules.

“If we do not preserve orbits, we will jeopardise their future use. People cannot send new satellites to an orbit filled with old debris. The benefits of space will be available both to us and future generations if we reduce debris and effectively manage space traffic.”