Path to sustainable space unclear after Russian invasion of Ukraine

COLORADO SPRINGS — Before Russia invaded Ukraine, many viewed international cooperation in space as safely isolated from geopolitical strife.

“This has changed dramatically now,” Josef Aschbacher, director-general of the European Space Agency, said on April 6, pointing to the “very severe sanctions” imposed on Russia by Europe and other space forces.

During some of the darkest parts of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Western countries continued to engage in joint research activities, including the Apollo-Soyuz manned docking mission in 1975.

But now projects, including the Euro-Russian ExoMars mission with its substantial sunk costs and unrealized scientific gains, have been sidelined as partnerships are suspended. This makes it “very difficult to predict the future” of cooperation with Russia, Philippe Baptiste, president of the French space agency CNES, said during the annual panel discussion of the heads of agencies of the 37th Space Symposium here.

The exception is the International Space Station, a partnership of 15 countries with outrageous roles for the United States and Russia. Panelists liked to emphasize that the partnerships that govern its safe operation remain firmly in place.

Broken space relationships, however, come when more international cooperation is needed to solve pressing global problems, including measures to protect an increasingly crowded space environment.

The panel emphasized the need for stricter international regulations to ensure space operations remain sustainable, as the rapidly increasing number of satellites launched into Earth’s orbit increases the threat of potentially catastrophic collisions in space.

The amount of waste in space is already growing at a faster rate than the level of plastic being dumped into Earth’s oceans, warned Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency.

While countries have stepped up efforts to create mechanisms to protect the space environment, the panel agreed that much more needs to be done.

Walther Pelzer, head of the German space agency DLR, said the heads of the panel of space agencies at the 36th space symposium also agreed last year that this was an urgent matter.

“Nevertheless, we’ve made little progress to really come up with solutions,” Pelzer said.

While it’s “nice to” have a group of like-minded countries on the same page, he ultimately said “it doesn’t matter if some countries don’t care, because then the problem will continue.”

Pelzer called for a combination of bilateral and multilateral agreements to accelerate the path to a UN-level framework, which he believes is the only way to create sustainable solutions.

But this path has been shrouded in uncertainty as space has proved prone to the same geopolitical struggles that hinder progress on Earth.

“What is the alternative to not working together?” asked Pelzer.

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