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Building Blocks of a Future Space Economy

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 18, 2019
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Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group meeting. (Credit Luxembourg Space Agency)

THE HAGUE (Luxembourg Space Agency PR) — Shortly before the release of their final results, we spoke to three members of the Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group.

This international working group, with representatives from governments, industry, space agencies and academics from around the world, was set up in 2016 with the backing from the Dutch Government. It also received funding from several other private and public entities, including the Luxembourg Government.

Its task was to develop a framework that could inform future treaties and international rules governing the exploration, exploitation and utilisation of space resources.

The ambition was to create a system of building blocks, which will help to create a framework ensuring space resources are utilised fairly and for the benefit of all mankind.

Giuseppe Reibaldi

Giuseppe Reibaldi worked for the European Space Agency for 35 years. He left ESA seven years ago to, among other things, consider how best to address the legal status of space resources. Giuseppe, could you say a few words about how the Working Group got started?

The Working Group first came into being back in December 2015, when I managed to organize the first round-table at The Hague Institute for global peace.

Thanks to the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Holland, we created the Hague Space Resource Working Group.

You are about to present the result of four years hard work. Can you give us some insight into the nature of the building blocks you have developed?

Well of course. The legal jargon is not very exciting, but in a nutshell, the building blocks are a way for countries to recognize each other’s peaceful use of space resources.

The building blocks are designed to form the basis of legislation which will allow companies to invest and conduct safe space resources operations, without coming into conflict with other countries.

To achieve this we have proposed a number of technical mechanisms and consultation processes, which are currently lacking in the main relevant piece of legislation – The Outer Space Treaty.

The goal is to facilitate space resources activity on a body outside Earth. And of course, the moon will be the very first practical implementation.

What were the most interesting lessons learned during the development of the building blocks?

The main new element was the multi-stakeholder approach. We have representatives from government, industry and academia. All together, 34 countries and about 120 people took part.     

Legal frameworks like this are usually discussed at government level. The approach we took involved industry from the beginning.

Our reasoning here was simple. Governments, most of the time, are customers. It’s industry that actually carries out the work. And if you want to foster the necessary investment, you need industry to feel comfortable with the legality of the business.               

Now that the working group has concluded, how do you see this discussion going forward?

Well, there’s a national level and then there’s the UN COPUOS.

Despite the goodwill of all the countries involved, UN discussions tend to be cumbersome. The Paris Environmental agreement of 2017 took 40 years!

Industry cannot wait that long, so we have suggested that governments take the building blocks and pass them as national legislation. Once they do that, and this is happening in several countries, they will have a sort of preliminary agreement. This will allow industry to consult each other and perform conflict resolution.

This is the route, which we would like to invite countries to follow. And I’m pleased to say that United States is leading the way in this direction.

Mahulena Hofmann

Now, representing the academic members of the Working Group, we have professor Mahulena Hofmann, holder of the SES Chair in Space Satellite Communication and Media Law, at Luxembourg University.

Could you tell us professor Hofmann, how Luxembourg University got involved with this project?

Prof. Hofmann: Luxembourg university has been building its capacity in space-related fields since 2011. Today we have two programmes, the Master in Space, satellite communication and media law for the law students. We also run the Interdisciplinary master for space activities.

We found the work of The Hague group very interesting because it somehow echos, at the international scale, activities which have been done at domestic scale by Luxembourg, trying to find some sort of international consensus on rules for space resources activities.

When did the university first become involved with The Hague Working Group? And what were the highlights of the process, for you?

The university became a partner in 2016. We hosted two meetings of the group, the final one took place just yesterday!

What I found most interesting was the lack of conflict between the interests of the operators and of the states.

It turns out that the operators themselves are very keen to work in a regulated environment. So they did not oppose having rules, and obligations.

On the contrary, the biggest tension was between colleagues from states with differing economic structures.

For example, colleagues from the countries which are based on a quasi-planned economy wished to have some system of obligation on the operators to deliver a part of their benefits into a specific international fund or institution.

On the other hand, colleagues from the liberal economic countries preferred to have a system of freewill contributions by operators.

In the end, these tensions were overcome with discussions, which took place over a number of years. And in trust-building measures. I think, this is a huge achievement.

And how do you see the discussions now going forward at an international level?

Prof Hofmann:  At the moment, the main forum for these discussions is the UN Committee for Outer Space. They have an initiative, which is collecting, on an informal basis, the positions of the states.

I cannot predict how this dialogue will develop, but for sure, the UN is very much involved.

Do you think the conclusions or the building blocks put forward by the Hague Working Group will be helpful for the continuation of these discussions, at a UN level?

I am convinced that they will, for several reasons.

The first is that they are very practical. They can be applied in principle, and they take into account the interest of industry.

Secondly, I think that previous experience is very important to anyone when they begin drafting a legal document. Here, we have already finalized a document, so even if it’s not fully taken into account it will serve as a source of information.

And third, the Building Blocks remind very much of the century-long experience of the International Telecommunication Union. Their system of registration of priority rights and of coordination, work on a similar basis. Theirs proved to be a very pragmatic and effective system. So, in my eyes, these building blocks could make a valuable contribution to international discussions.

Mathias Link

We are here in Luxembourg for the launch of the space resource building blocks. So it’s fortunate that we also have with us Mathias Link, Director International Affairs, Luxembourg Space Agency.

Mathias, could you first tell us how Luxembourg got involved?

Yes, Luxembourg created the, initiative in February 2016, with the aim of promoting the peaceful exploration and sustainable utilisation of space resources.

Of course, space resources utilisation brings a lot of benefits, but it also has a lot of challenges. There’s the technical challenge, naturally. And a financial too. But you also have a business challenge, because we are talking about markets that do not yet exist. 

And then you have the legal challenge, because at this stage, the legal situation with respect to space resource utilisation is not very clear.

So, we knew we had to address this topic, to provide legal certainty to entrepreneurs, to investors, to any stakeholders that want to make space resource utilisation a reality.         

Where do you even start, on such a collection of challenges?

The way we approached it was to say, ‘okay, because it is so complex, we will go step by step.’ One of the very first actions that we undertook in Luxembourg was to create a national law on this topic, clarifying the situation for Luxembourg.

Of course, we knew national legislation would not be enough on its own. This can only be a first step, so at the same time we engaged, very much, on an international level and the most natural place to go on an international level is in the United Nations COPUOS.

They have a sub-committee dealing with legal space affairs and within this committee, the topic of space resource utilisation has been discussed for a few years already.

Now, discussions at the UN take a long time, they are very complex as well because you have to make the whole world agree basically. So, we knew this was going to take time.

So, the Hague Working Group provided a more immediate way to address the legal questions underlying space resource utilisation?

That’s right. The working group sits in-between national efforts and truly international efforts, because it is a multi stakeholder group with experts from industry, from academia, but of course also from space agencies and governments.

The intention of this Working Group is to prepare some work that could later be used by more formal groups, like the one at the United Nations.

Fast forward four years and the building blocks are about to be published. It’s a real achievement.

Yesterday, at a meeting here in Luxembourg, we agreed the final 20 building blocks, which we hope will be useful for the development of a future international framework on the utilisation of space resources.

I think we can only applaud the efforts of this group, we are very happy with the results. And now of course, we look forward to the next, more formal steps, at the United Nations.

What are some of your highlights from the process itself? From the discussions leading up to yesterday’s agreement?

What I personally liked a lot in the whole process was that it was informal. That allowed for very open, but also very constructive discussions. This was wonderful to see, as there was a very different mix of stakeholders around the table.

On top of that, we also had a very diverse geographic representation. More or less all parts of the world were represented. There was a diversity of experience too. You had space lawyers of course. But you also had engineers and economists, so the feeling around the table was always that you had a good representation of the interests involved.

And how about the building blocks themselves. Are you pleased how they have turned out?

I encourage everyone to have a look at these 20 building blocks.

They take up just a few pages, it’s a quick read, but it gives you a very nice impression of the complexity of the whole topic and the many issues that will need to be addressed over the coming years.

We cover safety of operations, resource rights, prioritization for different zones that you want to get the space resources from… This is a fascinating topic.

Were there any building blocks that really stood out as more difficult than others?

Of course, there were some building blocks where we had very, very long discussions on.

For example, the notion of priority rights. How do you manage this?

How will you give priority to a certain company, or stakeholder, or NGO, or government, to go after resources in a particular location? Then, how do you tell another party, you will come next? A system to manage these priorities will need to be set up.

Distributing the benefits from space resources was discussed a lot too, because in the end, you want to do it for the benefit of humankind.

So what might these benefits be? We derived a whole list of possible benefits, not only for the countries doing the work, but for all countries and all humankind.

For more information about the building blocks: click here