Éditorial - Les nouveaux défis juridiques et géopolitiques de l'espace


Simonetta DI PIPPO, Directrice du Bureau des affaires spatiales des Nations unies

Ottavia PESCE, chargée de communication du Bureau des affaires spatiales des Nations unies


Cette publication est l'éditorial en libre-accès de la Revue Diplomatique n°13 de l'Institut d'Études de Géopolitique Appliquée (dir. Sandie DUBOIS, Damini PANTALEON), disponible à la commande ici.

Comment citer cette publication

Simonetta DI PIPPO, Ottavia PESCE, Les nouveaux défis juridiques et géopolitiques de l'espace (éd.), Revue Diplomatique, N°13, Institut d'Études de Géopolitique Appliquée, Paris, Mai 2021

Space is a fundamental pillar of our lives, and essential to advance sustainable development

As governments all over the world start to imagine the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity is faced with formidable challenges in rebuilding: economic downturn, job crisis, climate change, profound inequality in access to basic services, and, crucially, the need to rapidly build resilience for future disasters, while national capacities are still absorbed by the pandemic, are issues that confront developing and developed countries alike.

Space can help address each and every one of these challenges.

Space technology is already a pillar of modern lives: we would not be able to use our mobile, predict the weather, navigate a car or airplane and process a digital financial transaction, without space applications. Access to tele-health, digital education programmes and remote working, that kept our societies going during the COVID-19 lockdowns, are also enabled by space.

Climate science is one of the biggest beneficiaries of our ability to monitor the Earth through space applications. Satellite imagery provides information on the Earth's surface, its atmosphere, aquatic systems, and areas we would otherwise struggle to access, such as deserts and glaciers, in real time and in high resolution, that is essential to guide climate change mitigation efforts. More than half of the 54 Essential Climate Variables [1] developed by the Global Climate Observing System can only be monitored from space. Without space, we would be essentially blind to climate change.

Space infrastructure not only provides us with exceptional monitoring capabilities, it also enables us to progress toward sustainable development much faster than would otherwise be the case. For example, by determining a precise position anywhere, anytime, GNSS is essential for tackling crime and supporting disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. It is also crucial for finding the best locations for renewable energy production and the most efficient transport routes. Satellites can help fight diseases, for example by identifying environmental factors that attract mosquitoes and guiding localized eradication campaigns, as well as supporting sustainable agriculture and water management. The unique microgravity conditions provided by space also enable innovation break-throughs in areas such as biology and healthcare.

In 2015, world leaders came together by adopting the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [2] to guide development progress toward 2030. In 2018, UNOOSA joined with the European Commission for a study [3] to evaluate the impact of European space infrastructure on the SDGs. We found that Geolocation and Earth observation directly contribute to almost 40 percent of all 169 targets underpinning the SDGs. If one was to add telecommunication to the mix, which is also enabled by space, this percentage would increase dramatically.

It is clear that the role of space is already critical for our lives and for the future trajectory of humanity, and our dependence on it will continue to grow.

Countries (and private companies) are investing in space more than ever

Consensus is growing all over the world also about the importance of space for economic growth and innovation: the Space Foundation estimated the space economy was worth around US$ 424 billions [4] in 2019, and analysts such as Morgan Stanley expect it to grow to US$ 1 trillion [5] or more by 2040.

Research has consistently found positive returns from investing in space. For example, the sector multiplier for Earth Observation has been found to be higher than average, at around 4.8 [6]. Space sparkles innovation, and many inventions that originated in the space sector - examples include phone cameras, scratch-resistant glass lenses, air purifiers and water filters - ended up benefiting other sectors here on Earth. Space also creates quality jobs and inspires young people to pursue careers in the STEM sectors, strengthening the entire economy and future trajectory of a country.

Governments worldwide are taking note of these benefits, and also of the falling costs of space technology. Estimates from NASA show that, when the space shuttle was in operation, it could launch a payload of 27,500 kilograms for $1.5 billion, or $54,500 per kilogram. For a SpaceX Falcon 9, the rocket now used to access the ISS, the cost was just $2,720 per kilogram in 2018 [7].

Increasing awareness of the benefits of space, combined with the reduction in financial barriers to accessing the sector, has led to a massive increase in space activities, including by countries and organisations that are "new" to space. As part of its mandate, UNOOSA maintains the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space, created in 1961 at the request of Member States. The Register is a treaty-based mechanism that identifies the State responsible for a space object, promoting transparency and confidence among countries operating in space. In 2020, almost 1,300 objects launched into space were registered with UNOOSA. This is three times the number in 2019, and equal to almost 10% of all registrations in the history of space exploration.

In 2020, three new space nations, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Monaco, registered objects in space for the first time. They are in good company: since the beginning of the new millennium, dozens of countries have launched their first satellite: the number of countries that ever had an object in space went from 38 in the year 2000 to 86 today (as of March 2021).

Much of the increase in launches is coming from private sector actors: to give an idea of the magnitude, in less than two years, SpaceX launched more than 1,000 new satellites for its Starlink constellation, becoming the world's largest satellite operator and increasing the number of active satellites by nearly a third.

The influx of investments and flurry of launches taking place in space are also mirrored in diplomatic efforts to participate in space policy. UNOOSA is Secretariat to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), the primary platform through which states discuss the global space agenda. COPUOS was set up as a permanent committee by the General Assembly in 1959, to address the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit of all humanity. It is one of the fastest-growing committees in the United Nations system: it started with 18 Member States in 1959 and now includes 95 countries and 42 observer organizations, with more and more interested in joining. Together, the current 95 Member States represent almost 90% per cent of global population.

Despite all-time high participation in space, substantial gaps in accessing its benefits remain

While the numbers just mentioned are high, let us not forget that the United Nations has 193 Member States. Which means, more than half of the UN Member States still do not have access to proprietary satellite technology. Even among the many countries with a satellite in orbit, there are large gaps in the technological capabilities: often, countries start their space journeys with a technology demonstrator satellite, that helps build the capacity for future, more complex space missions, an effort that takes years and considerable skills and financial investments.

The International Telecommunication Union estimates that, globally, 93% of the world population has access to a mobile-broadband network [8]. However, the quality of this network varies greatly: for example, almost 13% of people in Least-Developed Countries can only access 2G [9], while this proportion is almost zero in Europe. People in rural areas faced greater challenges than those in urban areas in moving their work and education online during COVID-19, especially in developing economies. Without increasing access to space, these communities risk being left behind again in future crises.

Moreover, many talented people in developing countries do not have access to space education and careers. While space is progressively becoming more accessible, the gap in space capabilities - and hence in being able to leverage their benefits - remains high.

The vision of UNOOSA is to bridge this gap and contribute to building a world with a much larger share of UN Member States with a satellite in orbit, actively participating in global space governance and having policies, technologies and structures in place to make the best possible use of space assets, in the interest of all of humanity.

What difference would this make?

Inclusive access to space technology would enable advancements such as smart farming, higher agricultural productivity and efficiency even in remote areas, helping feed millions. It would greatly support water management and purification, expanding access to potable water. Global connectivity driven by increased satellite coverage would bring millions of people online, empowering children in remote areas to pursue education, entrepreneurs to access new business opportunities and markets, and saving lives through tele-medicine and tele-epidemiology. Cities around the world, and not just in rich countries, could leverage smart-technology enabled by space assets for efficient use of resources, meaning that energy, air, water and soil would be less polluted, and their inhabitants would enjoy higher resilience to disasters. These are just some examples of the future we are working to build: with space science and technology playing a central role, and no one left behind in leveraging the opportunities they offer.

Access to space is not limited just by income. More subtle glass-ceilings, for example related to gender, are also at work. Data from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs shows that women make up just over 35% [10] of STEM graduates worldwide. In the space sector, the situation is even worse: in 2016, OECD data for Europe showed women accounted for just 21% [11] of employment in space manufacturing, with little to no evolution since 2012. Other barriers, for example for young people to have a voice in the future of space policy and for people with disabilities to contribute their talent to the sector, are also formidable.

UNOOSA is committed to bridging the gap in participation in the space sector from all angles, be they related to income disparity, gender, age, disability, or any other factors.

UNOOSA at the centre of space diplomacy to bridge the "space gap"

In this context of booming space activities, multilateralism is key to bridge the gaps outlined above. UNOOSA is the only UN organisation fully dedicated to promoting the peaceful uses of outer space. We work with governments, private companies operating in space, space agencies, academia, NGOs, among other actors, to foster knowledge exchanges, build international cooperation and advance the use of space to benefit everyone, everywhere. Our work covers all areas related to space, such as space policy, space diplomacy, space law and the use of space applications for sustainable development and disaster risk reduction.

In order to share the benefits of space more equally, partnerships between established and "new" space countries and actors are key, and UNOOSA is the perfect broker to make these happen.

A key example of this approach is our Access to Space for All Initiative, that aims to bridge the gap in space capabilities among countries. Launched in 2018, the Initiative offers opportunities for teams from all over the world, particularly from developing countries, to access space, ranging from the chance to carry out research in microgravity and hypergravity conditions in top research facilities to the opportunity to develop and deploy a satellite from the International Space Station or to conduct experiments on board the China Space Station. These opportunities benefit from the support of exceptional partners, including leading space agencies - such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the China Manned Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA - and private sector companies operating in space, such as Airbus, Avio and Sierra Nevada Corporation.

One of the flagship programmes under the Initiative, the KiboCUBE programme with JAXA, has already enabled two countries, Kenya and Guatemala, to deploy their first ever satellites, and other winners of the programme are expected to follow suit, with Mauritius likely next. By having a satellite in orbit, these countries not only acquire unprecedented monitoring capabilities and data to direct policymaking, but also develop technology know-how that helps them crack the next levels of space exploration.

We also work to increase access to space education, helping talented individuals acquire the skills they need to develop the space sector in their countries. For example, together with the government of Japan, we offer a Post-graduate study on Nano-Satellite Technologies (PNST) fellowship for talented students to attend masters and PhD courses at Kitakyushu in Japan, a leading institution in this field. Several of the fellows have gone on to be part of the teams building the first satellite in their countries. Such capacity building translates into a brighter future for individuals and for their home space sectors alike.

We are also working to bridge the gender gap in space. Research shows the lack of mentors and women leaders in many scientific sectors is an important factor preventing more young women from pursuing, or even thinking of, education and career opportunities in these fields. Hence, through our Space4Women programme, we created a network of mentors, women in positions of responsibility in the space sector, who can guide young people worldwide in navigating space careers. We also help young people have a voice in the future direction of the space sector, for example through our Space4Youth competition, that asks youth all over the world for ideas on how to leverage space to mitigate climate change. Space exploration is an effort passed on from generation to generation, each one reaching further to new discoveries, and involving the youth is fundamental for its future. We are also developing activities to help people with disabilities connect with, and contribute to, space exploration.

Space is essential to build resilience to future disasters

Global, interconnected disasters such as COVID-19, at the intersection between environmental and human causes, are likely to become more frequent in the years to come, due to the accelerating effects of climate change and globalisation. As found by the World Disaster Report 2020 [12], to which UNOOSA contributed, in the past ten years, 83% of all disasters triggered by natural hazards were caused by extreme weather- and climate-related events, such as floods, storms and heatwaves. The number of climate- and weather-related disasters has been increasing since the 1960s, and has risen almost 35% since the 1990s.

If we are to face this enormous and mounting challenge, it is essential that we leverage the innovative solutions that space can offer for building resilience. Our United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) programme helps countries use space-based information in all phases of the disaster management cycle, from prevention to response.

This year, UN-SPIDER's role in helping to mitigate disaster risk through space was more important than ever, as it helped avoid other crises, such as natural and technological disasters, that could have mounted on top of COVID-19, and provided crucial help to governments whose capacities were already over-stretched by the pandemic. In 2020 alone, 12 countries benefited from tailored UN-SPIDER technical advisory support, and nine countries that experienced emergency events were able to acquire satellite data or maps to guide disaster management and rebuilding efforts through UN-SPIDER.

The programme relies on a network of 25 Regional Support Offices at institutions all over the world, that help it spread awareness of space-based tools for disaster risk reduction in their region. The UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal provides open data and recommended practices that stakeholders can adapt to their local contexts. Open data is a particularly important area for future development in the space sector, and one we strongly advocate for: developing countries, and citizens worldwide, can benefit enormously by being able to access existing knowledge, if more advanced space nations open doors for such access.

Building resilience also requires taking a long view of the main challenges facing humanity, not just in years but in decades to come, and water scarcity is certainly among the top areas of concern. According to a 2018 synthesis report on SDG 6 [13], if we continue the current course of actions and even further increase pressure on water resources, over half of the world's population, 45 per cent of the global GDP, and two-fifths of global grain production will be at risk by 2050. Together with the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water, we developed the Space4Water portal, a unique platform that brings together the space and water communities to exchange knowledge and leverage the potential of space for water sustainability. In 2020, the portal had over 14,000 users from 175 countries, exchanging data and best practices and building specialised networks.

We are also exploring how the space sector can contribute to economic recovery and growth after COVID-19, through our Space Economy Initiative, that identifies the success factors for creating healthy space economies that can ignite positive spillovers for other sectors.

Increased participation in space comes with increased challenges, that can only be addressed through multilateralism

The boom in space activities is good news for humanity: it will certainly lead to accelerated innovation and substantial benefits for development. However, it also comes with heightened challenges that can only be solved through stronger international cooperation.

Space debris in particular is an increasing source of concern for all nations, as underlined by the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. Many of us imagine space as infinite, but the orbits around Earth, in which satellites reside, are a limited natural resource and are being put under tremendous pressure by the rise in space activities. As highlighted in our recent campaign with ESA raising awareness about the issue of space debris, currently, over 2,700 working satellites share this space with 8,800 tonnes of space debris. There are over 900,000 space debris fragments of 1-10 cm in size, as well as big objects such as 2,850 defunct satellites. Accidental collisions, explosions and even the intentional destruction of satellites have created millions of debris fragments, which, orbiting at high speed, can damage or destroy any spacecraft that crosses their path.

Multilateralism is essential for addressing this issue. In 2019, COPUOS member states came together to adopt a preamble and 21 Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities. They were welcomed with appreciation by the United Nations General Assembly, and are an important step forward in promoting the conduct of space activities in a way that meets the needs of the present generation while preserving the outer space environment for future generations.

We are also working with the U.K. Government to expand international awareness of the Guidelines, and of the importance of space sustainability, and to create capacity-building services for emerging space-faring nations in this area.

Space traffic management is also a pragmatic solution to minimize the potential for collisions between space objects in Earth Orbit. Information sharing among nations about space situational awareness regarding space objects and events is crucial for operators of space objects to anticipate potential collisions and be able to conduct preventative and evasive manoeuvres. UNOOSA promotes and supports a multilateral approach to information sharing on all matters affecting the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including on space traffic management. Within COPUOS and its Legal Subcommittee, the international community has engaged with the issue since 2016, when it was adopted as an agenda item.

These are powerful examples of the power of multilateralism for addressing collective problems. It is our experience that international cooperation in space is often stronger than on Earth: as many astronauts say, humans are one species on space shuttle Earth, teaming together to solve common problems.

In the coming years, however, we will need to redouble efforts in this direction, as challenges both to development here on Earth and for the future governance and sustainability of the space sector are mounting. The willingness to share existing resources and knowledge, for example through open satellite data, to contribute to space governance and sustainability through COPUOS, and to build space capacity in developing countries through modern approaches, such as the partnerships we champion, will be key to ensure space is leveraged for the benefit of all.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 12 April as the International Day of Human Space Flight, recognising "..the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the well-being of States and peoples..". This year, we will celebrate 60 years from the first human flying in space, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961. Just six decades from that milestone, and our rovers are already exploring Mars. The first human who will leave a footprint on the Red Planet is probably already among us. The next six decades are going to lead to even faster break-throughs in space exploration. The time is now to set the basis for this new era of space exploration to be inclusive from the start, relying on all the talent we have to offer and leaving no one behind in sharing the benefits.

We are on the cusp of innovations that may lead us to developments that would have been unthinkable decades ago, such as mining resources in space and, worryingly, military confrontation in space. The main legal frameworks governing the utilisation of space were developed during the early stages of the space era, in the 1960s-80s. While they still provide extremely relevant foundational principles, for example guiding the use of outer space for the benefit of all humankind, in the coming decades, states will need to come together to establish ground rules on uses of space that were previously unimaginable. Such changes will require stronger mechanisms for international governance: increased participation in COPUOS, which we envisage as one day bringing together all UN Member States, and a reinforced role for the United Nations in promoting governance of space on a global scale, will be fundamental to ensure humanity can establish fair decision processes and rules to guide and maintain the peaceful uses of outer space.

History teaches us that, when states, private sector actors and civil society come together for dialogue and decision-making, the risk of conflict and unilateral decisions that may damage others is reduced. Space is no exception. The mechanisms and ground rules to guide its exploration for the benefit of all already exist. To unlock the full potential of space for our species, these mechanisms will need to be potentiated, with international cooperation at the centre of future space policy and inclusiveness in accessing the benefits of space a common thread in the sector. At UNOOSA, we are already unleashing the power of space to build the future we want.



[3] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and European GNSS Agency, 2018. European Global Navigation Satellite Systems and Copernicus: Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals. Building blocks toward the 2030 Agenda.


[5] Morgan Stanley, 24 July 2020. Space: investing in the final frontier.

[6] Booz&Co, 2014: Evaluation of Socio-Economic Impacts From Space Activities in the EU. Study key findings and conclusions.

[7] Jones, H., 2018, the Recent Large Reduction in Space Launch Cost. Presented at the 48th International Conference on Environmental Systems held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, on 8-12 July 2018.

[8] International Telecommunication Union, 2020. Measuring digital developments. Facts and figures 2020.

[9] As above.

[10] United Nation Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2020. The World's Women 2020: Trends and Statistics.

[11] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2019. The Space Economy in figures: How Space Contributes to the Global Economy.

[12] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2020. World Disaster Report 2020.

[13] Sustainable Development Goal 6. Synthesis report on water and sanitation. United Nations, 2018.