Effective Space Governance: Can This Really Be Achieved?

Subscribe To Download This Insight

By Matthias Foo | 2Q 2023 | IN-6977

The United Nations have published a new policy brief in May 2023 which highlights the importance for effective governance of outer space activities. This report acknowledges the fast-growing space industry and recommends that the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) takes action to create a unified regime and/or new governance frameworks for space sustainability. This insight takes a deeper look at the existing space industry governance issues and some solutions that have been developed to address them.

Registered users can unlock up to five pieces of premium content each month.

Log in or register to unlock this Insight.


Space Governance Is a Priority for the United Nations


In May 2023, the United Nations published a new policy brief which highlighted the importance for effective governance of outer space activities. This report acknowledged the fast-growing space industry—which is driven by an increase in the number of launched satellites, growing participation of private companies, and renewed interests in deep space among both private and public players—and recommended that the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) takes action to create a unified regime and/or new governance frameworks for space sustainability, covering issues such as space traffic management, space debris removal and management, as well as space resource activities.

With the impending launch and expansion of large Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, such as Starlink (SpaceX), Kuiper (Amazon), OneWeb, and Guowang (China Satellite Network Group), ABI Research expects the number of satellites in LEO to increase exponentially over the next few years, thereby making effective space governance a key area of focus.

Existing Governance Efforts Are Unable to Rein in the Space Industry


Governance of the space industry can be broadly categorized into three main buckets, namely at the (1) international, (2) country, and (3) operator levels. At the international level, the space industry is governed by the UN COPUOS, which was established in 1959 to oversee international cooperation regarding peaceful uses of outer space. One of the key agreements established at this level includes the Outer Space Treaty, which sets out the fundamental framework for international space law.

However, a key criticism of the UN COPUOS is in its relatively inefficient method of governance, which is primarily a consequence of its strict consensus decision-making approach. In this committee, strict consensus is required at all stages of the diplomatic process—from changing the agenda to incepting and/or adoption of governance measures. Decision processes often take a considerable amount of time, especially when a minority group of the committee are adamantly opposed to the proposed items.

While there are definitely advantages to the strict consensus method used currently, such as increased adoption and long-term compliance among members, the long-drawn nature of this process is perceived to be unable to keep up with the increasingly fast changing pace of the space economy. As such, new governance solutions need to be developed urgently.

Could New Solutions Address the Problems Afflicting the Space Industry


To address the existing issues with space governance, ABI Research suggests that a multi-prong approach—involving international organizations, nations, and private enterprises—could be considered to ensure safe and sustainable space operations for all parties. Some of the possible areas for consideration include:

  • Reviewing the Consensus Methodology: Rather than maintaining a strict consensus approach, the UN COPUOS could consider ways to increase the efficiency of the decision-making process, such as only requiring strict consensus for specific activities, or adopting a different means of achieving consensus based on the severity of the issue at hand (e.g., tacit acceptance, voting etc.). Implementing such changes would ensure greater flexibility in introducing new space governance measures and better responsiveness to critical governance issues. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows for voting if all efforts at consensus had been exhausted.
  • Blockchain Technology: Another interesting development in space governance is the development of space blockchain technologies which facilitate transparent, automated, and independent management of satellites in orbit. In order to effectively govern space activities while also providing a level playing field to all space actors, blockchain technology involves the use of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) where governance measures are determined by its members based on voting, and not by any single sovereign state. As a simple illustration of how the blockchain solution might work, participants are first required to put down some form of collateral. Thereafter, the autonomous nature of DAOs ensure that tokens/rewards and penalties are distributed automatically to members based on adherence to these governance measures, thereby encouraging the performance of accepted behaviors. One such example of a space blockchain initiative is Space DAO, by Parametry.AI ,which aims to maintain a register of satellites in orbit—by means of member consensus—to manage space traffic. Another example includes TruSat, a transparent and tamper-proof record of satellites, aimed at minimizing collisions between satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The growing number of satellites in orbit, especially in LEO, poses an increasing danger to the space ecosystem with greater likelihoods of collisions between satellites and space debris. A collective and concerted effort from all industry players is a must to ensure safer space operations for all.