One hundred countries are discussing new rules for the peaceful, safe and sustainable use of space in the UN’s COPUOS commission. Joanna Ruiter of NSO advises the Dutch participants in the meetings. "It's political, complicated and fascinating at the same time."
COPUOS, not many people will know it. What kind of organization is this?
“The United Nations has several commissions and this is one of the largest. COPUOS stands for Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The Netherlands is represented in COPUOS by a delegation from the Dutch Authority for Digital Infrastructure. It is a special meeting. Because no matter how great the tensions between nations on earth sometimes are, in this committee they continue to talk to each other about space. That was the case for the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. And that still is the case today, despite the war in Ukraine and other geopolitical tensions.”
What topics are discussed in COPUOS meetings?
“The most important conversations are about security in space and about the sustainable and peaceful use of space. Consider, for example, space debris, which we want to prevent as much as possible. Think of a joint system to manage “traffic” in space. And monitoring space weather and dangerous objects that can come to Earth from space.'
Space debris is a hot topic. How is COPUOS trying to do something about this?
‘For a long time, the number of satellites orbiting the earth stayed roughly same: about three to four thousand. In the past ten years, that has doubled to between seven and eight thousand. This is mainly due to commercial initiatives such as OneWeb and Starlink from SpaceX. At the moment, each country has its own “rules of the game” about what to do with old and broken satellites. COPUOS tries to change that with 21 specific guidelines. The more countries that adhere to these guidelines, the safer and more sustainable the use of space will become.”
Guidelines. That sounds different from laws you can enforce?
“It is very difficult to agree on international legislation. You also see this when it comes to wars or climate change. The United Nations works with treaties. For example, there is the Outer Space Treaty from 1967. This treaty is about the peaceful use of space. To date, it has been ratified by 113 countries, including all major space nations. But since 1967, the world of space has of course changed a lot…”
How difficult is it to reach new agreements with COPUOS?
‘The interests of China, Russia and the United States or those of countries with commercial parties do not always coincide. COPUOS works on the basis of consensus: everyone must agree on the content and formulation of new treaties and guidelines. That is why it is not easy to make decisions that everyone wants to stick to.”
Are there successes nevertheless?
'Certainly. An example is anti-satellite testing. In the past, several countries have deliberately crashed satellites. This resulted in a lot of space debris with major consequences for operational satellites and the future use of space. More and more countries are saying to COPUOS that they will no longer carry out such tests. That is profit.”
And that flight control for traffic in space, what about that?
“It is well organized in aviation. Countries have made clear agreements with each other about how to treat each other in the airspace. That is relatively easy: the airspace above a country belongs to that country itself. Any country can issue and enforce rules. A satellite flies around the earth at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. And the space belongs to no one. To keep things safe up there, the European Union is working hard on rules to properly manage space traffic. Ultimately, we want those rules to be introduced at a global level. COPUOS is the place to make agreements about this together.'
The Netherlands has been a member of COPUOS since 1977. Why are we participating?
‘Only if you are involved in the conversations at the highest international level, will you have an influence on future laws and regulations on the use of space. In addition, participation in COPUOS also gives access to the most recent information about the use of the space. And it's a great way to connect with other countries.'
You advise delegates who participate in the COPUOS meetings on behalf of the NSO. How is that?
'Fascinating. On the one hand, it is incredibly political and complicated. It is difficult to reach agreement. On the other hand, we have this forum. We talk to each other, even if the relationships are not too good in other areas. The Netherlands believes it is important that space is used for peaceful purposes, that it is safe in space and that we also strive for sustainability in space. Participating in COPUOS is the best chance we have to achieve this.”