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Working to ensure fair use of outer space

The Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit based near Boulder, Colo., is advising the United Nations and other organizations on the fair use of outer space.

SUPERIOR, Colo.--If you remember the scene from Pixar's "Wall-E," in which a rocket ship on its way to humankind's space station blasts through a debris field of abandoned satellites, you may have wondered if anyone on Earth is working to prevent that from becoming reality.

The answer is yes.

Here in this small town not far from Boulder, Colo., the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a nonprofit unassociated with any government, is thinking about that kind of issue, as well as several others related to the fair use of space, and succeeding at getting its analysis and recommendations heard by decision makers around the world.

The Secure World Foundation is a nonprofit that is advocating for the fair use of outer space. Secure World Foundation

"We promote the need for space governance," said Phil Smith, the Secure World Foundation's communications director, and help "establish effective systems of governance in outer space."

I visited the organization's headquarters--discreetly tucked away in a small house in a residential neighborhood here--as part of Road Trip 2009. I wanted to see what, if anything, people are doing to ensure that space isn't fully dominated--and contaminated--by any one or two countries.

Smith explained that the SWF breaks its definition of space governance into several different categories: international civil space situational awareness; mitigation of orbital debris; establishing systems for the efficient sharing of data from space-based remote sensing platforms; and working to prevent a space arms race.

While it may be easy to discount the efforts of a small organization based far from Washington, Brussels, Moscow, or Beijing, Smith said that the SWF's $1.5 million annual budget comes entirely from the philanthropy of a very-well connected family interested in promoting such issues.

Further he said, while its headquarters is in Superior, the SWF does maintain an office in Washington, as well as in Vienna, Austria, and makes its research and analysis known by working directly, with permanent observer status, with the United Nation's 69-member Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The SWF doesn't have voting rights on the committee, Smith clarified, but does sit in on its meetings and provide advice when needed.

That means, Smith continued, the SWF has three main goals: facilitating meetings between various interested groups to hash out issues; advocating for space governance; and spreading the word of its analysis by, among other things, giving briefings on Capitol Hill, and to local and state governments because the issues it works on do impact the space industry, and officials may not always be aware of the various things going on at the international and domestic level.

But ultimately, while the SWF does share its opinions with Congress, its primary constituency is not the U.S. government, but rather the international community, Smith said.

Space traffic management
To the SWF, space situational awareness (SSA) is a significant component of space traffic management. Essentially, Smith said, it's a bit like air traffic control.

The U.S. Air Force, he said, does most of the tracking and watches about 19,000 objects four inches or larger orbiting Earth, most of which are satellites that are either still functional or dead. But the SWF considers tracking space weather an equally important part of the equation, Smith said.

For example, those with assets in space have a constant need to be aware of things such as whether the sun is sending off rare coronal mass ejections, a major event of solar flare activity, which can cause considerable amounts of damage to satellites.

Further, detecting such events would be crucial if there were astronauts in space, as they could be killed if they weren't quickly returned from orbit.

And to that end, the SWF is able to access and monitor data that comes from a satellite called Soho, which monitors the sun 24 hours a day, looking for just this kind of solar activity.

Ultimately, Smith said, space traffic management is kind of an umbrella discipline that comprises things like SSA and monitoring space weather and orbital debris. And because there is general agreement that space traffic management is broadly necessary, Smith added, it's not as controversial as, say, discussing management of space weapons.

Space weapons
The management of space weapons, however, is "typically a starting point for controversy," Smith said. This, mainly, is about the development of anti-satellite weapons.

There is some concern about whether a country's satellite launch vehicle might instead be geared to launching a missile, which is where Iran and North Korea are causing controversy, Smith argued. But the SWF's main focus is on anti-satellite weapons, which are typically space- or ground-based systems designed for the disabling of satellites.

And, Smith said, there are just three countries thought to already be capable of such weapons: the United States, China, and Russia. However, he added, anyone with a launch vehicle technically has the ability to target satellites, meaning that countries like Japan, Israel, India, and now Iran could be added to that list.

The idea is to stave off the development of space weapons. The United Nations' Conference on Disarmament is the main international organization looking at this, though Smith pointed out that there are today no known space weapons in orbit. But it's a definitional problem, he explained. At one time, the Soviet Union thought that the Space Shuttle was meant to be a space weapon that could, for example, orbit and grab satellites.

But today, the goal is to prevent the development of such weapons, and that is handled mainly by the Conference on Disarmament, Smith said. While the SWF is an observer at the U.N., it doesn't have such status with the Conference on Disarmament. Instead, the organization relies on its extensive roster of contacts and relationships to influence the space weapons discussion, Smith explained.

Orbital debris
Beyond the political problems anti-satellite weapons can create, the SWF is concerned about them because of their potential to create space debris. That's because a destroyed or dead satellite can wreak havoc on functional satellites.

"A small piece (of debris) can create an enormous amount of damage due to kinetic energy," he said.

Today, Smith said, there are voluntary guidelines that member nations adhere to when it comes to creating space debris. But the SWF is hoping to make those guidelines "more robust," he said. Of course, while it's impossible to do away entirely with space debris, everyone involved is hoping to stop it as much as possible.

The question is, how do you prevent the creation of debris? Do you forge a treaty, Smith said, or a strong, fundamental set of rules everyone agrees to abide by. But enforcement is a big problem, he added. It may, in the end, be about peer pressure. For example, he said that in 2007, China launched an anti-satellite weapon at one of its defunct satellites, destroying it and creating a great deal of debris in the process.

From China's perspective, the test proved that it had the technology--and once proved, it's not necessary to have to do it again--but the country also took a lot of flak from the international community for creating the massive amount of debris.

The big idea is to figure out how to best track space debris to provide data to satellite owners so that they can maneuver their assets around junk that might cause significant damage, and therefore additional debris. Still, with the amount of space activity growing, it is expected that space debris will increase over time, as well.

Planetary defense
Another main area of SWF's focus is on planetary defense, or the protection of Earth against asteroids, or comets, or other space junk that could appear out of nowhere, impact the planet and cause serious problems, up to and including massive species extinction.

The Association of Space Explorers, a group of former astronauts, is one group that is focusing on this issue, and has produced a report on how to deal with this issue at a policy level.

But again, the SWF gets involved at the international policy level, weighing in when asked by the U.N. about what to do with the astronauts' report. The idea is to prepare a plan so that if a hazardous space object is detected, we know what to do about it, rather than having to create a plan on the fly.

And that leads to a final area of the SWF's main focus: data sharing.

The SWF wants to ensure, Smith said, that everyone has access to data that can be collected by satellites about global vegetation growth, about the effects of global warming, as well as many of the issues discussed above.

While a small organization without major funding or direct involvement in any of the issues it studies, the SWF would seem to have limited power. But because it is consulted regularly by the United Nations and has contacts throughout the world, we can all hope that having a non-governmental nonprofit looking out for the fair use of space will help further that goal. After all, who else is going to argue for space?

Click here for the entire Road Trip 2009 package.