1. Signing of the Artemis Accords
In 2020, NASA announced the multilateral agreements draft for international Lunar cooperation within the Artemis Program framework. The first eight countries (Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxemburg, UAE, UK) formally signed the Artemis Accords during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in October 2020, with Ukraine and Brazil joining before 2021. This document held the purpose of implementing international obligations envisioned by the Outer Space Treaty, and its scope of application includes all activity carried out on Moon, Mars, comets, asteroids, along with their orbits.
NASA initiated the Accords bilaterally, inspired by the anniversary of the International Space Station. Critics however generally based comments on the fact the US did not bring the discussion to UNCOPUOS on a broader international level. Many professionals across the world signed an open letter to COPUOS encouraging international agreement on space resource utilization before IAC 2020. The Outer Space Institute heading it published the Vancouver recommendations urging boundaries for resource exploitation. Parallel efforts to build an international framework surrounding the topic coming from the Moon Village Association and Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group are interesting and valuable reads as well.
For All Moonkind has highlighted that the provisions of “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act” together with Section 9 “Preserving Outer Space Heritage” of the Artemis Accords, supports responsible exploration and use of space. According to Section 3 of the One Small Step Act, anyone who wants to conduct activities for, or in partnership with NASA will have to adhere to the 2011 NASA’s Recommendations for the protection of US Government Lunar Artifacts and to any future “recommendations, guidelines, best practices or standards” issued by NASA relating to the principle of due regard and the limitation of harmful interference with artifacts on the Apollo landing site.
Giuliana Rotola and Claudiu Mihai Taiatu
2. Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency established
In November 2020, a group of eight Latin American countries banded together to create the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE). Led by Mexico and Argentina, the news of the incorporation of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Paraguay, as members, and of Colombia and Peru, as observers, was announced on Twitter by the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs. The initial goal of the agency will be to strengthen the region’s satellite constellation, assisting fields such as agriculture, communication, and the monitoring of climate events.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the endeavor, but there are also concerns. First, the agency will probably have a very limited budget. For instance, the Mexican Space Agency had a budget of little more than USD 3 million in 2020, in comparison with USD 18.5 billion and USD 8 billion in the US and China, respectively. Additionally, political uncertainty might hinder this project as it did with others in the past. On the other hand, stronger cooperation will increase the region’s soft power to establish agreements with major space organizations, such as their European counterpart, which inspired its creation, and NASA. Besides that, a joint organization might increase accountability, facilitate specialization, and ignite technological development, particularly in the smaller countries of the continent.
Noticeably, Brazil did not take part in the agreement. In January, the country left the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), the multilateral organization under which ALCE is being created. In December, Brazil signed a statement of intent to join the bilateral Artemis Accords, the first (and so far only) South American country to do so.
3. Japan revises Basic Space Plan policy
Japan made headlines this year with the unveiling of its revised Basic Space Plan in June 2020, the fourth policy of its kind pursuant to Article 24 of the Japanese Basic Space Law of 2008. One major announcement was the Space Exploitation Prize to award business cases advancing or promoting the use of outer space. In line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commitment to Japanese security, the 2020 policy instructed the establishment of a Space Operations Squadron, a military unit dedicated to space security and defence which shall cooperate closely with the US Space Force. A new mission, the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, was announced in the new policy, aiming to enhance the existing capability of the US Global Positioning System in the Asia-Pacific region, for purposes of navigation, national security and disaster management. Because of these friendly developments with the US, it is unsurprising that the strategic budgeting of the Japanese space program was also revamped along with a stronger focus on creating ties between JAXA and other space agencies for utilizing the potential of outer space and celestial bodies.
4. SKA is go for construction
In September 2020, SKA Organization (SKAO) completed the final reviews, thus opening to its construction phase. The Square Kilometer Array is an intergovernmental collaboration aimed at building the largest radio telescope globally, located partly in South Africa’s Karoo region and Western Australia’s Murchison Shire.
Till date, 15 countries are part of the organization. Seven have signed the Convention establishing the international organization in Rome in 2019, and five have already ratified it (most recently Portugal in December 2020, followed by the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa, and Australia). SKA’s Construction shall begin in 2021. The objectives are aimed at making ground-breaking discoveries in namely four areas: galaxy evolution, gravitational behavior in pulsar and black holes, cosmic down, and life beyond Earth.
SKAO also recently carried out an analysis of the potential impacts of the deployment of satellite constellations. It has emerged that it is necessary to implement measures in order to mitigate possible harmful effects such as the interruption of radio signals, potential saturation of the instruments caused by interfering signals, and the scientific impact caused by data loss. Therefore, 2021 can certainly expect new collaborations between astronomers and satellite operators to find optimal coordination between the many interests at stake.
5. European Space Agency developments
The European Space Agency shall play an important role in future lunar exploration missions. In October 2020, ESA and NASA finalized the Artemis Gateway Partnership, where ESA will participate through the development of habitation and refueling modules. In January 2021, it was also announced that a contract was stipulated with Thales Alenia Space, of about € 296 million, for the construction of the ESPRIT Gateway module, also consisting of the Halo Lunar Communication System (HLCS) with the ESPRIT Refueling Module (ERM).
Another significant milestone was observed in 2020 where ESA signed a contract for the first space debris removal operation with Swiss start-up ClearSpace. The mission, scheduled for 2025, aims to contribute to space environment sustainability, initiating a clean-up operation long overdue. On an ending note, last year, ESA appointed the new Director-General Josef Aschbacher, current ESA Director of Earth Observation Programmes and Head of ESRIN, to succeed Jan Wörner, director general of ESA since 2015, assumed to start his mandate in March 2021.
6. OneWeb bankruptcy and UK government acquisition
On 27 March 2020, OneWeb Global Limited filed voluntary petitions for relief under chapter 11 of title 11 of the United States Code (the “Bankruptcy Code”) with the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. It could be reasonably considered that in the bankruptcy procedure, OneWeb identified as valuable assets its spectrum priority with the ITU, the 74 satellites in-orbit and the 44 completed ground stations. The Regulatory team secured for OneWeb the priority rights at the ITU on 7 August 2019 when the company brought into use frequency assignments in the Ku- and Ka band spectrum. On 20 November 2020 OneWeb emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The UK Government and Indian conglomerate Bharti Global Ltd. were confirmed as the new owners. OneWeb restarted its launches with Arianespace on 18 December 2020, with the fourth launch carrying 36 satellites raising the total in-orbit constellation to 110 satellites. On 13 January 2021 OneWeb modified its request at the FCC for U.S. market access reducing the number of satellites from 47.884 to 6.372. If successful, the total license for the U.S. market shall bring the denomination up to 7.000 satellites. OneWeb has predicted that its first-generation system of 648 satellites will be deployed by the end of 2022.
Claudiu Mihai Taiatu
7. Chinese Chang’e-5 success and lunar sample return
The end of the last decade saw significant progress in lunar sample return, paving way for continued lunar exploration and future sample return from near-Earth asteroids and Mars. On 16 December, China’s Chang’e-5 return capsule landed back on Earth with 1.7 kilograms of lunar material. This has been the first successful lunar sample return since the U.S. Apollo missions and the Soviet Luna program in the late 1960s and 1970s. The samples are expected to be younger than those previously collected, potentially shedding light on the recent lunar history and solar system evolution.
The mission was also a demonstration of technology for future human exploration, including the ability to ascend from lunar surface and rendezvous in orbit. China has further announced its vision for the International Lunar Research Station at the lunar south pole, for which China is seeking international partnerships. Chang’e-6, -7, and -8 are intended to make incremental progress towards this goal.
8. Science developments
2020 saw numerous developments in space science. On 30 July, the Mars Perseverance rover was launched, expected to land at Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021. The rover’s primary mission is to search for signs for ancient life on Mars and to collect rock and soil samples. On 30 December 2020, the U.S. National Space Council released a new Planetary Protection Strategy highlighting the need to update guidelines for preventing biological contamination of other planetary bodies from Earth and vice versa.
On 14 September 2020, scientists announced possible detection of phosphine on Venus, suggesting that it may indicate the presence of microbial life. However, the scientific community heavily scrutinized this result. Phosphine on Venus now seems less likely, but the controversy has sparked some to consider the need for standards while announcing high impact science results.
On 1 December 2020, cables supporting an instrument platform at the famed Arecibo observatory collapsed, destroying the radio telescope’s dish. This collapse followed a smaller one earlier in the year that prompted its decommissioning. The loss of Arecibo is impactful. Not only are its capabilities not easily replaceable, but it has served as an inspiration for many young space enthusiasts through its appearances such as in movies like Contact.
9. Indian Space Activities Bill and policy
In June 2020, the Government of India brought forth a major reform by opening up India’s space sector to private players. Private entities are allowed to use the infrastructure, scientific, technical and data resources of the Indian Space Research Organization for their space activities. This was followed by ISRO Chairman, K Sivan announcing that India’s space policy, as well as the Space Activities Legislation, are in their final stages.
The Draft Space Activities Bill was first put forth for comments in 2017, proposing a centralized authorization and licensing mechanism for commercial space activities. For the grant of licenses, it is mandatory to be in compliance with, inter alia, India’s international obligations including the registration of space objects. The power to determine the quantum of liability on private players for damage or losses rests with the government. While the regulatory framework has been in development circa 2017, it has gained incremental traction since June.
The new space-based communication policy encourages and governs the participation of the Indian agency in the commercial space market. The policy enables private players to collaborate in the space domain and keep pace with the growing demand for network connectivity, satellite-based broadcasting, and GMPCS (Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite). The government wants private companies to function as partners and not just vendors. The policy shall govern orbital slots, satellites, commercial use of satellites, and ground stations for communication needs. The Government of India shall adopt measures to monitor and authorize the use of space assets and ensure their protection. The policy also aims to promote the rise in participation of commercial Indian industries to provide space-based communication, both within and outside the country.
The new draft policy and the space activities legislation are aimed at enabling India to attain a significant position in the global space communication sector and the commercial space industry. These developments mark a paradigm shift in India’s outlook towards space.
Sanket Kalambe and Anmol Dhawan
10. UAE space legislation comes into force
In February 2020, a new UAE space legislation entered into force. The UAE Space Agency was established by UAE’s first space law, Federal Decree No. (1) of 2014. No regulations were included in this first law and the newly formed UAESA was tasked with developing its regulatory framework. The UAE Space Agency is a small but agile organization, and it is able to grow and shrink in size depending upon its needs. In 2016, the UAESA released the first National Space Policy with the aim to position UAE among the world’s leading nations in space sciences before 2021.
Five years after the establishment of its space agency, the UAE replaced Federal Decree-Law No. (1) of 2014 with an updated space law based on the objectives outlined in the 2016 National Space Policy. This new law, Federal Law No. (12) of 2019, issued on December 19th, 2019 is quite comprehensive and contains the regulatory framework that was missing from the 2014 law establishing UAESA. The stated objective of the Law is to (1) Stimulate investment and private and academic sector participation (2) Implement measures for enhancing long-term space stability and sustainability; and (3) Uphold transparency and commitment to inculcate international conventions and treaties.
The specific activities regulated by the law include the launch, re-entry, removal or disposal a space object from the orbit; the operation of space objects and satellite communication activities; providing logistical support services in outer space; the management of spatial data activities; and the collection or trade of meteorites that fall in the UAE. Overall, the UAE has established a clear strategy for its space activities since the establishment of its space agency, laying out concrete plans for future goals and deliberately executing them.