Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What is space security? To most of us, the concept of space itself is foreign, not to mention broader discussions of the security or governance of space. For Jessica West of Project Ploughshares, space security is anything but abstract. In fact, it is a crucial and urgent conversation for the fields of peacebuilding and international policy. With the launch of the 16th edition of the Space Security Index on October 28th, West and Ploughshares continue elevating space security in global discussions.

   Orbital debris around earth

Credit: NASA   

The Space Security Index (SSI) is the first and only annual, comprehensive, and integrated assessment of space security. In it, space security is defined as the “secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space and freedom from space-based threats.” While this definition is universally accepted, the goal of the SSI is to broaden discussion about space security beyond weapons, and provide a holistic look into policies that protect how outer space is used and accessed.

The SSI was born out of the need to define and measure the indicators of space security under the following four themes: the state of the space environment; access and use of space by global actors; security of space systems; and outer space governance. Already engaging two civil society organizations and three universities in permanent partnerships, the next hurdle is to bring more voicess into governing bodies, such as the United Nations.

This October, West saw significant progress on that goal by hosting a full day of discussions with government, civil society, and commercial stakeholders at the United Nations in New York, in partnership with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Secure World Foundation. The day featured West's findings from the 2019 SSI, and panels with experts in space technology, space law, commercial space operations, and disarmament. The final panel ended with a multilateral discussion which presented plausible steps towards creating safety and sustainability in space.

West is clear that space security affects everyone, saying, “By caring about space security, we are valuing our common humanity, our own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the planet.” Leveraging its own position as a global leader in peace and security, Project Ploughshares is continuing to integrate space policy into new conversations, such as climate change and human wellbeing. While space activities implicate humankind in a number of ways, including internet access, disaster management, AI, and Global Positioning Software (GPS), one of the biggest impacts on human wellbeing is the potential for conflict in and through outer space.

Since modern warfare is heavily dependent on the use of space (take missile tracking, for example), it is integral that the discussion of space security does not isolate “space conflict” from all other forms of conflict. Nonetheless, space is different. A key aspect about conflict in space is that the conversation is still largely focused on prevention, says West. But the peacefulness of outer space is eroding.

  Space Sattelite

Credit: MetOp

Currently, there is a global stalemate on next steps to preserve space for peaceful uses and prevent actions that would damage safety, security and sustainability of the environment. As states around the world plan for weapons and warfare in space, and act recklessly in the space environment, there are growing concerns that space warfare is likely the next location for escalating conflicts. Beside the physical implications of space warfare, a real threat exists in the lack of governance around space activities. Without engaged governments, civil society organizations, and commercial actors, the necessary governance models are not likely to emerge as quickly as the impending conflicts demand.

When asked if there was hope for preserving the integrity and security of outer space, West paused and quietly stated, “there is hope, but space as an inherently peaceful domain is gone.” If space security truly is the final frontier in policy development and governance, West and the Space Security Index aim to protect this hope, and to use it as a catalyst for decisive and informed action.

Project Ploughshares and the Space Security Index engaged 17 student researchers across 3 universities for its 2019 edition, and have resources available for anyone interested in outer space and life on Earth. To get involved and learn more, visit Project Ploughshares and the Space Security Index.

Project Ploughshares is the peace research institute of The Canadian Council of Churches and operates out of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College on the University of Waterloo campus. 

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