Space sustainability and the drift away from multilateral agreements are key trends that will define space regulation in 2024.

Increased geopolitical tension, more attention on environmental issues, and technological innovation in space have contributed to the emergence of these trends. Space regulation needs to be administered effectively to encourage investment and innovation in a potentially revolutionary industry.  

International space regulation: on the way out?

International efforts towards regulating space have mainly come in the form of guidance and advice, rather than binding legislation. There is growing evidence to suggest that individual states are turning inward to regulate space activities, rather than relying on multilateral agreements. For instance, the US Senate passed the Orbital Sustainability Act of 2023 unanimously on October 31, 2023, which legislates the need for NASA to create an active debris removal program to tackle the issue of space debris.

The fact that individual states are pursuing national policies instead of multilateral agreements demonstrates that the space economy has great potential economic impact, as nations are unwilling to wait for comprehensive international legislation. For example, the US has been developing many Space Policy Directives—which cover areas like the creation of a Space Force, cybersecurity, human-space exploration, and even potential nuclear power in space, to ensure they get a head-start in the space economy.

There is little policy uniformity among the traditional leaders in the space economy, such as Russia and the US. This lack of uniformity makes it harder to develop the private sector in space and can potentially cause damage to the space environment, as interested parties are playing by different rules. This could make it difficult to operate satellites, coordinate launches, or control the traffic in space. ​

Space sustainability: key to unlocking the benefits of the space economy

There has always been a severe deficit of regulatory action in the space economy. The technology and effects created by the space economy are far outpacing what can currently be safely regulated, similar to what we are seeing with AI technology. Emerging trends that need to be regulated include space weapons, space debris pollution, and light pollution. ​

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On a domestic level, there have been instances of breakthroughs in sustainability regulation. The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that there are one million space debris objects between 1cm and 10cm currently in orbit and, in 2023, the US Federal Communications Commission fined DISH Network $150,000 for leaving space debris, the first penalty of its kind.​

Detailed guidance on dealing with the issue of space debris has been published by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. Guidance like this needs to be turned into formal legislation to be truly effective. The amount of space debris is always increasing so it is clear that publishing guidelines on their own has not helped with enforcement. There are not enough space regulation safeguards in place to help deal with the issue, but if the issue is not addressed, technological innovation will slow down as rockets will not be able to launch, due to the amount of debris that could potentially block a flight path.

It is clear that space regulation is on the mind of governments in the space economy—but there is a long way to go before uniform global regulation.