Facing competition from countries like India and China, US lawmakers are exploring the possibility of making changes in the five-decades-old Outer Space Treaty, which they argue needs a re-look given the fast-paced changes in space exploration.
"While the future appears bright, we cannot afford to become complacent. The United States does not stand alone in this new emerging space race. Just last month, it was announced that China and the European Space Agency are interested in creating an outpost on the moon," Senator Ted Cruz said during a Congressional hearing this week.
As activities in space increase, they will undoubtedly pose new challenges as countries and companies compete for resources throughout the universe, he said.
Cruz said the US should anticipate that there will be conflicts as countries and private industry race to reach areas of the moon that hold significant advantages, such as, "peaks of eternal light and the lunar sites that may hold vast quantities of water."
These sites will provide economic and operational advantages for those who reach them first, he said on Wednesday.
"Therefore, it is incumbent on Congress to use this 50- year anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) to properly determine our actual international obligations, to decide if specific articles in the treaty are self executing or not, and to ensure that our domestic policy moving forward creates an environment that provides certainty for industry while protecting our national security," Cruz said.
Cruz made the remarks while chairing a hearing on Outer Space Treaty by the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness wherein the advancement made by several countries in the last few decades including that of India was prominently mentioned.
"Give me your view as to what the reaction would be in Russia or China or India if the Senate legislated in the area of Article 6, if it put requirements on the books. What's the reaction internationally if we do that?" Senator Edward Markey asked the panel of experts during the Congressional hearing.
Outer Space Treaty which entered into force in 1967 forms the basis of international space law.
While the treaty has been successful so far, lawmakers said some of the provisions have not been tested.
For instance, the treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. It also states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and that space shall be free for exploration and use by all the states.
Matthew Schaefer, co-director, Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law Programme, University of Nebraska College of Law, said there is going to be some countries that oppose US interpretations of various OST provisions for matters of national interest regardless.
"But I think when we comply with Article 6 the OST, we increase the number of countries that we have the credibility to lead towards the US inspired to the commercially friendly inspired interpretations of the treaty," he said.
"And when we don't comply with Article 6 of the OST, what we do is we send some countries, China and Russia is -- though China actually has been noticeably pretty quiet when it comes to asteroid mining and property rights. But as a general matter, we send countries their way and we also have less credibility to insist those countries when, again, a US company is a first mover," Schaefer said.
"If we don't have as part of our criteria for authorising commercial companies looking at whether we're doing harmful interference with a pre-existing activity with them, we won't have the credibility to them, insist on them doing the same for us," Schaefer said.
Senator Gary Peters from Michigan was curious to know about India launching 100 satellites in one go and if it was created any conflict or whether it would increase space debris.
"One issue that came up of particular concern is the amount of space debris that now exists in orbit. I think I was reminded of a recent launch by India where there were 104 satellites I believe on one launch vehicle," he said.
"Many of those are US nano-satellites but, nevertheless, an awful lot of stuff is going up there into the tens of thousands to keep track of them as you're well aware of, those materials moving at 17,000 plus miles an hour could cause a great deal of damage. Give me a sense of what you think or should we put together some sort of legal framework to deal with this debris differently than we do now?" Peters asked.
Mike Gold, vice president for Washington Operations, Space Systems Loral, said, that India deploying 100 or more in one launch is the reason that there was a need to get these rules in place in a manner that balances innovation to maintain the security of the environment in space.
Senator Markey said India was launching and they were doing things that the US has never done.
"So, what standards do you want have set here that then we would say, 'Well, these are what we believe are legitimate standards, India or other Middle Eastern countries. What are you doing to meet these minimal standards that we think should be in place?" he asked.
Retired Air Force Col Pamela Melroy, a former astronaut, said everybody has preferences for how they want other people to operate their satellites to the benefit of their own country.
"But if you don't have a basis, a safety or technical basis, that is actually getting generate mistrust, you know, why do you want me to do it that way," she said.
"So, it's very, very important that I think, that we should use the universal language of physics. Space is a unique domain. It's not intuitive the way it is to us here in the ground and the maritime and even the air domain. And so, really understanding the implications of what you're doing," Melroy said.
"A great example of that is you might think it would be a standard to stay a certain distance away from any given satellite. However, that's meaningless in low Earth orbit as satellites might be passing each other in orbits that will never collide ever, ever. On the other hand, they seem to be coming close to each other. So, you really have to understand actually what's going on," she said.
"A better idea is that you have a passively safe orbit so that you won't collide with any other satellite until if you decide to do a rendezvous at the very latest practical moment, which is usually guided by the physics of the client's satellite," she added.
So, those are the kinds of predictable behaviours that give the confidence that people actually have done the science behind what they are doing and they are not going to collide with each other and generate debris, the former astronaut said.