Outer space is more fundamental to our lives and more under threat than at any time in history. Today, the U.S. government and economy receive enormous benefits from space. Still, the strategies that secured our nation’s leading role in space won’t be enough to sustain that leadership in the coming decades. With the nature of space leadership in transition, the entire U.S. government needs to respond to rising opportunities and challenges in space with a strategic approach that considers the beyond-sky-high stakes.
As the National Space Council prepares to meet this week, job one is to fully apply space technology to address the most compelling issue of our time — human-induced climate change. It’s time for the council to develop a comprehensive space for climate policy that draws on diverse voices and approaches to support recent U.S. commitments, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
The heart of the policy would be gathering information from government, private sector, academia, and international sources, then sharing it promptly and widely to enable novel applications, incentives, and emissions enforcement at home and abroad. Space technology has been central to monitoring, measuring, and modeling climate change for decades. However, the urgent need to limit warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions now requires harnessing space for action. Improved satellite data can drive a multi-layer approach for enforcement of agreed emissions limits on carbon dioxide and methane on a national and global level. Severe warming is already with us, but new investments in space-based sensors — plus harnessing data from civil, commercial, and national security satellites, as well as data from international partners — can help mitigate some of the damage from extreme weather events, fires, and other sources.
Beyond climate, space technology is making activity on Earth increasingly transparent. For example, commercially available imagery can track Russian troop movements on the border with Ukraine and monitor the expansion of Chinese nuclear forces. Private companies are now mastering multi-phenomenology intelligence from space, such as using radio signals monitoring to cue imagery collection to track illegal or provocative maritime activity. This growing public transparency can help defuse international tensions and provide an advantage to the United States and its allies. The council should embrace this trend toward openness and continue promoting U.S. industry’s novel remote sensing capabilities and services, recognizing that the days when government restraint on private industry could fully protect operational secrets are behind us.
While satellites are increasing transparency here on Earth, the increase in satellite activity also creates a growing need for coordinated action in orbit to ensure orbital space remains sustainable. The previous administration directed the Department of Commerce to develop an approach to civil space traffic management, but progress has been slow relative to the rapid growth in space traffic. The council should help Commerce and supporting agencies accelerate these efforts and work to gain buy-in from Congress and international partners.
Space traffic management and better space sustainability practices are necessary steps toward preventing dramatic deterioration of the orbital environment. Still, these efforts cannot prevent devastation from intentional damage if major power conflict extends to orbit, or if nations repeatedly test anti-satellite interceptors at altitudes where debris is long-lived. Earlier this month, a Russian anti-satellite missile test created more than 1,500 trackable pieces of space debris and countless smaller pieces, each of them threatening global space assets. Thankfully, the United Kingdom has been building international support for developing norms of operation in space that could help reduce the risk of misunderstandings escalating to conflict, and a United Nations committee recently voted 163-8 in favor of such norms. The council should orchestrate robust U.S. participation and help resolve disputes between government agencies that may be ambivalent about making even non-binding commitments.
The council’s upcoming meeting offers a pivotal opportunity to make progress on harnessing space to address the climate crisis, monitoring and mitigating conflict on Earth, and driving space sustainability while outpacing threats in space. While no single meeting can decisively address so many topics, focusing on these items will signal to the world that U.S. space leadership is committed to the most critical issues. It also stands to inspire a diverse new generation of scientists, engineers, and other space enthusiasts. The sky is not the limit.
Jamie Morin is the head of the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy.