What is space security?

The definition of space security guiding this report reflects the intent of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that outer space should remain accessible for all to use for peaceful purposes now and in the future:

The secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space and freedom from space-based threats.

The key consideration in this approach to space security is not the interests of particular national or commercial entities, but the security and sustainability of outer space as an environment that can be used safely and responsibly by all. This definition encompasses the sustainability of the unique outer-space environment, the physical and operational integrity of humanmade objects in space and their ground stations, as well as security on Earth from threats and natural hazards originating in space.

The Dynamics of Space Security

The outer-space environment is fragile and threatened by the accumulation of debris that results from all human activities and is exacerbated by accidental collisions and the intentional destruction of objects in orbit. Even the smallest pieces of debris can be harmful to orbiting satellites.

At the moment, we don’t have sufficiently precise information on the number of type of objects in outer space, their location, and how they are moving through orbit to ensure that the objects and people that we send into space remain safe.

This environment is also a scarce natural resource with a limited capacity to support human activity, including available orbital positions and radiofrequency spectrum to communicate data back to Earth. Outer space is a harsh environment that is subject to space weather and potentially hazardous asteroids and comets.

Outer space—our part of it, anyway—is also increasingly congested. Access and use of outer space are increasing rapidly. There are currently more than 2,000 operational satellites in orbit, owned by more than 70 countries. Thousands more, now in the planning and development stages, will provide new services such as space-based Internet and 5G connectivity. An expanding group of global stakeholders are getting involved in these new activities. All have an interest in maintaining the security of outer space and contributing to global well-being.

Renewed interest in space exploration—particularly of the Moon—is inspiring a new generation of exploration and science, and possibly the discovery of new resources. But this activity must be carefully regulated to ensure equitable access to and sustainability of the explored environment.

As on Earth, activities in outer space can involve cooperation, competition, and conflict among actors. Sometimes these interactions advance access to space through technological transfers and capacity building, and the development of new governance rules, such as the recent guidelines on the long-term sustainability of outer space. Competition can expand access to space by spurring innovation in launch technology and new satellite services.

But competition also creates rivalries, making actors unwilling to share information, such as orbital data, that is critical to maintaining a high level of security in outer space. And some forms of competition—such as military competition—risk escalating into conflict.

The prospect of conflict in space is becoming likelier as more states rely on space assets to support a broad array of military operations, such as precise positioning, navigation, and timing; surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering; strategic and tactical communications; and missile early warning and tracking. Some states now consider outer space a domain of warfare. No hostile antisatellite attacks have been carried out against an adversary; however, the development and demonstration of capabilities to interfere with or physically damage space systems are accelerating.

Why does space security matter?

Outer space is a global commons that is central to military, environmental, socioeconomic, and human security on Earth and to science, exploration, and discovery. The ability to access and use outer space is critical to the well-being of all nations and people. Resources in outer space support applications from global communications to financial operations; farming to weather forecasting; and environmental monitoring to navigation, surveillance, and treaty monitoring. It is imperative that all humankind can access and enjoy the many benefits of space today, and that this use is sustainable in the future. But maintaining the safety, security, and sustainability of outer space is challenging.