A New Space Age

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

Space, and our place in it, is a big topic of discussion right now.

We have private companies vying for a place beyond our atmosphere, alongside governments attempting to position themselves for the future as our world continues to struggle with mounting population, resource and climate issues.

We even, apparently, have the United States’ Congress contemplating a ‘space army’… because… um… the Covenant are coming?  Could be the Cylons.  We’d probably want to stop the Cylons.  Probably the Covenant too.  But I digress.

Space is a hot topic and it’s only going to get hotter.

In previous articles, we’ve reported on the body whose job it is to encourage the nations of the world to cooperate on all things “outer space” – the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.  It’s also this body’s job to keep a register of all objects launched into orbit.  And there are a lot.

All of that is a hefty responsibility, particularly for what is, essentially, a very small group of people operating from what is, nowadays, outdated legislation.

Governing all things Outer Space for Earth is the ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.’  Yes.  That’s something of a mouthful!

The Treaty, in brief, provides a basic framework on international space law, and includes the following:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by government or non-governmental entities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects, and;
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Obviously, they need to update the language to say “humanity”, instead of “mankind”, but they also need to review the whole thing because unless I’m mistaken we’ve launched quite a few harmful objects into orbit that threaten the safety of any mission that carries humans into space, as well as the lives of every astronaut on the International Space Station (and if a satellite goes rogue and smashes into the ISS, I don’t know if any nation could afford to repair it), plus, things fall to Earth and if they survive re-entry, some of those things are very radioactive.

I’m also pretty sure some businesses, and perhaps even governments, want to lay claim to certain celestial bodies for mining rights.

The International Space Station

The Treaty was signed in January 1967, by the Russian Federation, the United States of America and the United Kingdom.  Over time, others have become signatories or ‘party’ to the Treaty, though not all nations on Earth have bothered – mostly because they don’t have space programs.

The Treaty has been amended over the years, but could still do with a rework as we face that once final frontier, right now.

Treaty Declaration - UN

50 years ago, when the Treaty came into being, years before most of us were born, all of this was the stuff of science fiction.  Now it is science fact.

Elon Musk intends to die on Mars, Australian Scientists have just worked out a way to make astronauts safer in space (thank you Australian National University) thanks to a new nano-material they’ve created that can reflect light on demand and has a temperature control, and can, it is believed, be developed further to protect our brave space pioneers from harmful interstellar radiation.

As each year passes, we grow closer and closer to making those things that inspired my generation – and possibly yours – a reality: China and Europe are exploring the idea of building a human outpost on the moon (hello Space: 1999), multiple agencies and governments and businesses are gearing up to travel to Mars (hopefully not is any sort of a disastrous way – we’re looking at you, Mission to Mars and Red Planet), and multiple space-mining companies are springing up (Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, and Kepler Energy and Space Engineering bringing with them visions of The Expanse and the dynamics that exist between Earth, Luna, Mars and the asteroid belts in our solar system) looking at ways to help Earth and humanity.

What’s going to happen as industry and government vie for control of the incredible resources that exist beyond the atmosphere of our small but beautiful blue-green planet?

What happens if greed overrides the common good?

News.com.au and other outlets around the world, recently reported that one particular asteroid’s precious metal deposits could crash the world’s economy.

How long will idealism stand against the level of wealth available to us beyond Earth?

The ideal would be that we could all come together, like Space: 1999 and Star Trek propose, but the reality of human nature is that greed is here and it’s been around for a long time, and, sadly, a lot of people are motivated by that.  As a result, we’ve justified wars for resources on this world for centuries and chances are we will find ways to justify wars for resources off world too.  Is it possible our next big conflict won’t be a World War, but a resource war fought over the Asteroid Belt or the Kuiper Belt?

One thing is certain, we as a species are finally heading into space.  We got there, at least as far as our moon, then sort of retreated, built an international space station, and dreamed while waiting for someone with courage to propel us forward again.  Now it looks like we’re finally returning to space and planning to go further than we’ve ever gone before.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do it in a way that is measured and sensible, and that benefits all of humanity and not just the rich, and hopefully the United Nations will help us do that and do it with wisdom.

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive, and an incredibly frightening one as well.  Some of our greatest minds don’t believe we, as a species, can survive on Earth much longer because of our growing population and disappearing resources, and as a result have to go out into space.  They’re probably right.

The decisions we make right now, the precedents we set, and the way we go about establishing this foundation of exploration, is so vitally important.

What can you do about it?

Get involved.  Whether through aspiring to be one of those space pioneers one day, or by holding your elected representatives accountable, you can, in some small way, have a say on whether or not our future as a species takes these next steps wisely, or selfishly.

We’ve kind of screwed up Mother Earth.  It would be nice if we at least learned from the mistakes we’ve made.

As much as I love some of the almost dystopic science fiction out there, I don’t want our future generations living any of those possible realities.

Do you?

As all of this starts to ‘nut’ itself out, we’ll report on it here. The future is being built right now, and hopefully it will be built on strong and lasting foundations.

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Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic Announce Unity

When Gerry and Sylvia Anderson envisioned Space: 1999 back in the early 70s, they probably thought it would be the governments of the world that would take the first major steps toward colonising our solar system and enabling every day people to experience space.

While NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency and other similar organisations have done a great deal of work in this area, it’s private businesses that are looking further afield as they investigate space tourism and even space mining.

One such company is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company within the Virgin Group that is developing commercial spacecraft with the aim of providing suborbital spaceflights to tourists who want a space experience.  Virgin Galactic is also exploring suborbital launches for space science missions and actual orbital launches for small satellites.

One of Virgin Galactic‘s future goals is to conduct actual orbital spaceflights for every day human beings.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating company and their objectives, click here.

The company was founded by Sir Richard Branson and it’s certainly had its ups and downs since its formation in 2004.  Despite some setbacks, Sir Richard has never given up on his dream.

Following in the footsteps of WhiteKnightTwo (a custom-built, four-engine, dual fuselage jet aircraft that was designed to carry a suborbital vehicle up to an altitude of 50,000 feet for a safe and efficient launch), and the first SpaceShipTwo (a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry up to eight people into space that broke apart and crashed in 2014 over the Mojave Desert), Sir Richard unveiled Virgin Galactic‘s second SpaceShipTwo on the 19th of February in Mojave, California.

Professor Stephen Hawking named the new vehicle VSS (Virgin Spaceship) Unity via a recorded speech and said “I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.”

Along with Space X and a few other private companies, Virgin Galactic is taking some exciting steps forward in making spaceflight a relatively inclusive experience.  I say ‘relatively’, because the cost per passenger isn’t something many of us will be able to afford.

While the eventual commercialisation of space is exciting, it’s also a little frightening.

In 1967 the United Nations sponsored “Outer Space Treaty” established all of outer space as an international commons by forbidding all of the nations of the world from claiming territorial sovereignty over any body or location beyond our planet.

That Treaty was ratified by 102 countries, including all major space-faring nations.  In association with that Treaty, the “Moon Treaty” was finalised in 1979 and came into force in 1984, forbidding private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate.  Sadly, as of the 1st of January 2013, only 15 governments had ratified the agreement and none of them were major space-faring nations.

All of this has become very relevant recently, as people start to ask questions about mining asteroids, mining the moon, and even establishing tourist hot spots on Luna and Mars.

One thing is for certain, if there is money to be made out of the moon, Mars or any object in the solar system, legal challenges will eventually make things like the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty irrelevant – or it will modify them significantly.  When we look beyond the financial gain some businesses would be set to make by mining objects in our solar system, the simple fact that Earth’s resources are disappearing may make it all a moot point.  In some minds, it seems more and more imperative we explore the possibility of colonising our solar system.

As we move forward into this ‘brave’ (?) new world of space tourism and potential corporate expansion into the solar system, it will be interesting to see how the governments of the world and the United Nations shape up to deal with these challenges – and the amazing potential that lies beyond our beautiful blue-green world.

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