After Russia invaded Ukraine and declared war in late February, little was known about Putin’s plans to win the conflict. But the answers started to come from the sky – literally: satellites were put to work to help spot Russian troops, like the kilometres-long convoy bearing down on Kyiv identified on February 28.
Nearly real-time imagery from the space may seem a new thing, especially when covering war. Still, companies like Maxar Technologies and BlackSky have been providing these data for a while, decades in some cases. And while both are headquartered in the United States, their jurisdiction knows no boundaries. The same applies to satellite companies worldwide.
Actually, while you read this article, there is a chance a satellite is taking a photo of your location from some point in Earth’s orbit. “It’s really impossible to be secret today. Period,” Michelle Hanlon, Co-Director of the Centre for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, said in an interview with 6GWorld. “The satellite industry has blossomed, and the technology is just incredible [today].”
According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are 7,220 satellites orbiting Earth, 6,376 of which are registered with the UN. The number of machines in space is increasing fast, and from a legal perspective, that new reality could be troublesome.
Spying Under Some Rules
The first satellite to orbit Earth was Sputnik 1, launched by the former Soviet Union in 1957. Back then, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers battling for hegemony, including in space. Both countries would release their satellites to spy on each other.
To avoid a war in space, in 1967, nations signed the Outer Space Treaty, in which countries agreed that they should use space only for peaceful purposes – that is, no weapons allowed. Other legislations have been ratified since then, but the Treaty continues to be the most relevant one.
“What the Treaty says with respect to satellites is not much,” Hanlon explained. “It says, first of all, that the space shall be free. The use of space shall be free and accessible to all. You can’t just claim something in space, but anybody can put a satellite there.”
On the other hand, companies must be responsible for their machines. “Once you get up there, you remain in jurisdiction and control over it. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna turn my back and leave it behind. Who cares?’ If your satellite does damage to somebody else’s satellite, you are liable under international law,” she observed.
An important result is that the Treaty understands countries are responsible not only for the satellites they launch as states but also for the national private companies’ satellites. So, if an American enterprise’s spacecraft clashes with a Chinese one, the United States as a nation is liable, not just the company.
In fact, that almost happened. “In 2021, we had a really interesting incident in that China had launched the first parts of its space station and sent a formal note to the United Nations complaining about Starlink. They said they had just launched the station parts and already had to do two maneuvers to avoid a Starlink satellite, one of the smaller constellations,” she told. “China sort of said ‘United States, don’t forget you have the responsibility.’”
Hanlon says that anything that a commercial entity does becomes a state issue. She worries about that because some very small incidents can become “overblown diplomatic issues.”
Such a scenario has become a real and recurrent concern, especially because small satellites and satellite constellations are taking over Earth’s orbit. According to the UN’s Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, while annual launches were stable until 2012, from 2013 there was an explosion in satellites released.
Clean Your Room
While the surge in the satellite industry has been providing people in remote or underserved areas with internet connectivity or even helping authorities fight wildfires, it also raises questions about how to legally deal with its negative impacts.
“When commercial satellites are used for government purposes or, for example, this most recent, remarkable case where SpaceX sent Starlink to Ukraine, it is a commercial entity supporting a war effort. We start thinking a whole bunch of different kinds of public international law about warfare, and unfortunately, it brings space into that war domain.”
Another issue is debris. According to NASA, there were more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” larger than 10 cm orbiting Earth in 2021. That figure includes pieces from launches during the Cold War. They travel at 25,266 km/h (15,700 mph), so you can imagine the damage even a small part can do if it hits a spacecraft.
In 2021, Russia shot a missile and destroyed an old Soviet satellite, creating a cloud of roughly 1,500 pieces that turned into debris in low orbit – that is, between 250 kilometers and 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Earth’s surface.
“Under international law, what we really need to focus on is orbital debris,” Hanlon stated. “We need to get debris out of our orbit to assure the safety of our satellites. We also need to have some sort of agreement so we don’t see any more ASAT tests [similar to the one Russia ran]. This cloud [of debris] will be a danger to this space station for many years to come.”
The Future of Satellites
Sputnik 3, launched by the Soviet Union in 1958, was 3.57 metres long and had a base diameter of 1.73 metres. It weighed 1,327 kg (2,925 lbs.), similar to a small car. GOES-R, a geostationary weather satellite operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is even bigger: 2,857 kg (6,299 lbs.) and 6.1 metres long (20 ft).
Compared to Starlink’s current 260 kg (573 lbs.), the difference is notable. And the evolution is set to kick off a new era for satellites – and humans.
“More and more people are going to realise the resources available to them in Earth observation,” Hanlon believes.
Beyond other federal or nationwide uses, today Earth observation satellites help businesses to assess whether their stores are performing well by counting how many cars are parking there every day; in Athens, the government uses satellite images to check if people have hidden swimming pools from their tax forms and charge their citizens properly.
But in Hanlon’s opinion, we have just scratched the surface on how to use information from space.
“I see a future where I can look up a satellite and say ‘Oh, you know, I wanna see my father from overhead because he’s not picking up the phone [and something bad may have happened to him].’ Satellites are going to really be integrated into our lives.”
Featured image by SpaceX
Journalist since eight years old, when I would read the newspaper out loud and pretend it was a radio show. Based in São Paulo, I have worked for Brazilian websites as reporter and editor before joining 6GWorld