COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, was established by General Assembly resolution 1472 (XIV)1 in 1959, following the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. The focus of COPUOS includes coordinating and assisting the international space-faring community in a variety of issues, such as the problem of space debris, expansion of satellite-based navigation systems and forming a link between spaceflight and the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The prevention of a space-based arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was the central focus of its earlier existence, and lead to the creation of several anti-armament treaties, with the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.
Cubesats, a common variety of Nanosatellite, were first produced at Stanford University in 1999 as a means for graduate students to practice the process of building a satellite while remaining within the budgetary constraints of a university or college setting. Throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, this platform blossomed and became an accepted standard in post-secondary and aerospace industries. Though initially focused around engineering durability and simplicity, much like that of the first Sputnik satellite; governments, corporations, and universities have been pushing the platform’s complexity to manufacture CubeSats capable of performing scientific missions, supporting defense initiatives, and execute purposes traditionally not reserved for larger satellites.
The inexpensive nature of Cubesats and a growing ease of access to Earth’s orbit allows smaller institutions and firms to engineer and launch missions at an increasing rate. Though advantageous for the industry, more material being placed in orbit around the planet leads to an increase of space debris once these satellites missions have concluded. There is also a question of national security, since some of these devices have the capability to monitor the earth, and thereby sovereign countries, without oversight from governments. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is the current regulatory framework in which countries abide by in the construction of spacecraft. Two later additions to the law, the Space Liability Convention and the Registration Convention, require that member states report and accept liability for spacecraft built and launched by entities within their jurisdiction. Governments have recently started to evaluate their existing laws on small satellites. For example legislation was recently drafted in the United Kingdom to bring British CubeSat production and operation within the terms of liability and environmental impact specified in the Outer Space Treaty and an existing British law, the Outer Space Act of 1986. This Act limits which entities are allowed to construct Cubesats and seek launch solutions based on the English Government’s liability under the Outer Space Treaty. The United States, though not limiting who may build and launch, chooses Cubesat projects from across the country that conform to international standards and streamlines their process by providing launch into orbit through NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative. Without such a service, costs would be too great for those wishing to enter orbit to bear.
The United States is a leader in Cubesat production. Cubesat projects have become increasingly self-funded as corporations become interested as developers. In addition university projects can be funded through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program (ELaNa) or individual state’s Space Grant Consortia.
Though some effort has been made by the international community to regulate the removal of material from orbit, this responsibility has largely fallen on the countries which launch the satellites into orbit to remove them. The United States require that Cubesats deorbit after a given period of time as not to generate unneeded debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The United States Joint Space Operations Center also tracks every object circling the earth. Governments and companies have begun to explore solutions to remove debris from orbit, including larger satellites dedicated to deorbiting other craft.
As a committee, you must decide what measures and regulations must be in place regarding the launch, funding, and removal of Cubesats from orbit. The existing framework must be reevaluated to conform with current events in Cubesat development. These changes should be transparent and available to all members of the United Nations.
Questions to Consider:
- What is your nation’s space presence? Would changing policy on Cubesats affect you?
- Is removing Cubesats from orbit the responsibility of the entity who launched it, or their nation’s government?
- Should public funding be given to private organizations for cubesat research?
- Should there be any restrictions on who can build and operate cubesats?