Who Owns Space?
War and peace in the cosmos
In the darkness of space … something is coming.
In fact, it’s coming right for the International Space Station…
…which is orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour…i
…which is also roughly the speed of the object coming straight at it…
…and in just a few moments the astronauts onboard are going to see something you really don’t want to see in space.
In 2016, this actually happened.
And the object that collided with the space station…
…was a fleck of paint no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimeter across.ii
The good news: The damage to that window wasn’t enough to cause any safety problems.
The bad news: had it been any object larger than 10 centimeters, it could have shattered a satellite or a spacecraft into pieces.iii
The worse news: There’s a lot more where that fleck of paint came from.
Outer Space: boundless, inspiring, beautiful … and a junkyard.
According to NASA, there are over 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth.iv Expand out to include items bigger than a marble and the number grows to half a million.
Where is all of it coming from? Some of it’s debris from past missions. Some of it is fragments of old rockets or defunct spacecraft. And some of it is stuff that our friends in the international community … have just blown the [s*^*] out of.
In 2007, China ran a weapons test in which it destroyed an old weather satellite with a missile, a single incident that added more than 3,500 pieces of large debris to the Earth’s orbit.v
In 2021, Russia conducted a similar exercise, which threw so much material towards the International Space Station that NASA had to wake the astronauts onboard and tell them to evacuate to their space capsules.vi
There’s a big problem here. As the amount of space junk increases, so do the chances of a potentially devastating accident. One study estimated that in the next 20 years the risk of a serious collision with a satellite will increase from 11 percent to 90 percent.vii And those satellites do everything from helping synchronize electrical grids to monitoring the weather to providing internet access to people who’d otherwise be cut off from the outside world.
How could we allow something like this to happen? Well … who’s “we”?
You see, the problem with space junk is just one of several difficulties that all trace back to one basic fact: No one owns space.
That’s by design. In 1967, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom took the lead on the Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement that all the world’s major powers signed onto, laying down the principle that space was the common property of humanity, and that no nation could make a claim to any part of it.viii
Now, there are obvious upsides to that: For one, it’s kept power-hungry countries from running amok trying to gobble up cosmic real estate.
Well, power-hungry countries … and Texas, probably.
But on the other hand, as humanity gets increasingly active in space, it raises an important question: Who’s in charge here?
And that question is likely to hang over some of the biggest disputes about space in the coming decades.
It’s going to be a factor when it comes to national security. Currently, the U.S., China, Russia, and India all have the capacity to destroy orbiting satellites.ix Russia has already threatened Western satellites if they’re used to assist with the war in Ukraine.x And there’s a clear reason for that: As one Ukrainian commander said, fighting at the front line without the assistance of satellites “is like fighting without a gun.”xi
The rules around those kinds of attacks? There really aren’t any, because the Outer Space Treaty was written before most of these technologies existed.xii Although it’s worth asking if any of these hostile powers would abide by the rules anyway.
That’s a question when it comes to holding territory in space as well. One thing the Outer Space Treaty is clear about is that countries don’t get to claim chunks of outer space as their own. Yet the head of NASA, Bill Nelson, told an interviewer in 2022 that he worries China has precisely that plan for the moon.xiii And whether or not that’s actually Beijing’s ambition, Pentagon officials have warned that China could surpass the United States as the world’s dominant space power within the next decade.xiv
One other area where the question of “who owns space?” is going to be important … might surprise you: mining.
Space is filled with precious minerals and rare metals. That’s part of the reason the U.S. and 20 other countries — though, notably not Russia or China — have signed on to an agreement called the Artemis Accords,xv which, while still prohibiting countries from controlling territory in space, does allow them the right to resources they extract in space.xvi
And if you’re wondering why anyone would bother with a mining process that difficult, consider the following: It’s been estimated that a single asteroid located between Mars and Jupiter may contain metals worth as much as 10 quintillion dollars. xvii You can look it up, that’s a real number. It's also a number larger than the size of the entire global economy.
So, are we destined for a future of anarchy in outer space? I mean, researchers have actually warned that all that mineral wealth could to lead to space piratesxviii (which we know is bad but does sound incredibly cool).
But there also might be hope for order as well — because we actually have experience with a situation like this … in the world’s oceans. No one owns them either — but thanks to centuries of diplomacy (and more than a little conflict), nations around the world have worked out rules to allow maritime trade, combat overfishing, and, importantly, punish people who break the rules. In the end, they decided their self-interest was better served by cooperation than conflict.
Will we be able to pull that off in space? That depends a lot on what leaders here on Earth are willing to do. But let’s hope for the best. Because if we fall short … think we all know what means.
- What Is the International Space Station? — NASA
- Impact Chip — The European Space Agency
- Space Debris and Human Spacecraft — NASA
- "The Calls for More Progress on Space Governance Are Growing Louder" (Doug Irving) — RAND Corporation
- Earth’s Orbits at Risk: The Economics of Space Sustainability — OECD Space Forum
- Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
- "A New Age of Space Defense" (Anshu Siripurapu, Thamine Nayeem, Michael Kohler) — Council on Foreign Relations
- "Russia Warns West: We Can Target Your Commercial Satellites" (Guy Faulconbridge) — Reuters
- "SpaceX Questions Ukraine’s Use of Starlink for War" (Adela Suliman) — Washington Post
- "Placement of Weapons in Outer Space: The Dichotomy Between Word and Deed" (Almudena AzcárateOrtega) — Lawfare Institute
- "Chinese Want To Occupy the Moon" (Maximilian Both) — BILD
- DOD and New Space New Mexico Conclude 4th Annual Space Conference to Advance Prosperity, Sustainability, and U.S. Space Leadership — Defense Innovation Unit
- First Meeting of Artemis Accords Signatories — U.S. Department of State
- "Space Property Rights and the Future of American Space Travel" (Aidan Poling) — Georgetown Security Studies Review
- "This Metal-Rich, Potato-Shaped Asteroid Could Be Worth $10 Quintillion" (Elizabeth Gamillo) — Smithsonian Magazine
- "Future Uses of Space Out to 2050: Emerging Threats and Opportunities for the UK National Space Strategy" (James Black, Linda Slapakova, Kevin Martin) — RAND Corporation, p. 24
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Footage | NASA: ESA/Hubble // Webb Space Telescope: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScl // Neil A. Armstrong // U.S. Department of Defense: Defense Innovation Unit // U.S. Department of State // Kremlin // Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Spaceballs (1987) // Aukland Museum: Old Colonists' Museum // Smithsonian Institute: Gift of Muppets, Inc. // The Washington Post // OnlineAthens // The Rand Corporation // Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: CCCP // Getty: Aris Messinis, Kevin Frayer, 3000ad, Djmilic, Floortje, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Chin Heng Teoh / EyeEm, Petra Richli, John Moore / Staff, Pool / Pool, STR, Blackred, Feverpitched, Kevin Dietsch, RockfordMedia, Suriyapong Thongsawang, Tetra Images, Chris McGrath / Staff, PA Images / Contributor, Jae Young Ju, Fotografia Inc., Andrew Stowe, Shaunl, Michael L Kaser, Gorodenkoff, Shansche, Tombonatti, Jinglemarket // Flickr: Palácio do Planalto // Unsplash: NASA, Rich @ rhubbardstockfootage, Blake Weyland, Riya Rohewal, Evan Demicoli, Kenny Eliason, Mike Petrucci, Simon Lee, Betty Subrizi, Pawel Czerwinski, Gower Brown, Wonderlane, Adam Miller, Sunder Muthukumaran, SpaceX, Andrey Metelev, David Moum, Gatis Marcinkevics // Pexels: Stefan Stefancik, Rags Fehrenbach // Zscout370 // Stefan-Xp // Sangjinhwa // Smasongarrison // SKopp // -Revi // TSamuel // Government of Singapore // Government of Ukraine // Governo do Brasil // Ian Fieggen // Illegitimate Barrister // Jdx // John Emil Hernandez // Dbennbenn // Adijapan // Albert Hastings Markham // Cergun62 // FDRMRZUSA // Perhelion // TheTaraStark // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
What Is the International Space Station?
- The European Space Agency
Space Debris and Human Spacecraft
- RAND Corporation
"The Calls for More Progress on Space Governance Are Growing Louder" (Doug Irving)
- OECD Space Forum
Earth’s Orbits at Risk: The Economics of Space Sustainability
- United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies
- Council on Foreign Relations
"A New Age of Space Defense" (Anshu Siripurapu, Thamine Nayeem, Michael Kohler)
"Russia Warns West: We Can Target Your Commercial Satellites" (Guy Faulconbridge)
- Washington Post
"SpaceX Questions Ukraine’s Use of Starlink for War" (Adela Suliman)
- Lawfare Institute
"Placement of Weapons in Outer Space: The Dichotomy Between Word and Deed" (Almudena AzcárateOrtega)
"Chinese Want To Occupy the Moon" (Maximilian Both)
- Defense Innovation Unit
DOD and New Space New Mexico Conclude 4th Annual Space Conference to Advance Prosperity, Sustainability, and U.S. Space Leadership
- U.S. Department of State
First Meeting of Artemis Accords Signatories
- Georgetown Security Studies Review
"Space Property Rights and the Future of American Space Travel" (Aidan Poling)
- Smithsonian Magazine
"This Metal-Rich, Potato-Shaped Asteroid Could Be Worth $10 Quintillion" (Elizabeth Gamillo)
- RAND Corporation
"Future Uses of Space Out to 2050: Emerging Threats and Opportunities for the UK National Space Strategy" (James Black, Linda Slapakova, Kevin Martin), p. 24
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- "Space Debris and Human Spacecraft" (NASA)
- "The Calls for More Progress on Space Governance Are Growing Louder" (RAND Corporation)
- "Space Property Rights and the Future of American Space Travel" (Georgetown Security Studies Review)
- "Mining in Space is Coming" (Milken Institute Review)
- "China’s Ambitious Space Programs Raise Red Flags" (National Defense)
- "Space is an Opportunity to Rethink Property Rights" (Reason)