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There is a place for all in outer space: ‘It’s not just for the geeks and the nerds’

There is a place for all in outer space: ‘It’s not just for the geeks and the nerds’

UN News: Madam Director, technological development makes space exploration an even more promising vista than ever before, but at the same time, outer space is no longer just a matter for individual states or some interstates projects. It's being increasingly commercialized. What is the UN doing to make sure that his competition remains peaceful and fair?

Aarti Holla-Maini:  I wouldn't characterize anything as a competition. I think we must move away from the notion that there is still a race for space that was very much a Cold War situation at the time. We have moved on from there. Now we are really looking at space science and space exploration and looking for the most innovative and pragmatic approaches to that. That's why we see more commercial companies getting involved. If space agencies on their own run large space missions, they risk taking a lot longer and being a lot more expensive. 

The private sector allows a space agency, for example, NASA, to invite companies to make their proposals, and then selecting companies to engage in various missions to the Moon. If NASA was to do that on its own, it would cost a whole lot more money. This way, they spread their risk by funding multiple missions over a given period of time. They increase the chances for success. 

And at the United Nations, we have the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), that's the birthplace of all of the treaties and the resolutions and principles and guidelines which underpin everything that we see happening in the space economy today. And it's our job to make sure that we maintain transparency and an open dialogue. 

Around all the innovations that are happening, even if they involve companies, the industry can contribute to a to better, more informed decisions taken by policymakers. So, we're looking also for new ways to include industry in the dialogue but preserving the decision-making power of the Member States themselves: we don't want to move to a ‘pay-to-play’ model. That's not what the UN is about. 

UN News: Ever since the space age began, the Moon has been seen as a possible launchpad for deep space exploration, where research liboratories could be built or precious minerals excavated, whatnot. What does the UN have to say about the Moon exploration and development? As it's becoming a popular topic, are there any new initiatives in this area when it comes to legal matters or any other body of law for that? 

Aarti Holla-Maini:  We are the Secretariate at the COPUOS, and the Committee also has two subcommittees. One is the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and another is the Legal Subcommittee. We have lunar activities being covered by both and that's two separate strands.

In the legal subcommittee the discussion on space resources takes place, and by resources we mean the whole discussion on what should be done with resources that can be found on other celestial bodies, including the Moon. What can we do with lunar regolith? What should we do if we mine asteroids? Can those resources be brought back to the Earth, commercially appropriated, and so on and so forth. All of these questions are difficult questions because they actually shine a spotlight on some of the fundamental principles in the Outer Space Treaty, which says that space is for all humankind. 

So, the commercial angle is not obvious there, and that's a difficult discussion. And COPUOS is looking at potentially making some guidelines around that. Similarly, in the scientific and Technical Subcommittee, we received a proposal to start a consultative mechanism on sustainable lunar activities, and we hope that it will be signed off eventually in June at the plenary meeting, and that perhaps it might result establishing an action team to look at the more practical aspects of safety and sustainability. 

Even if we have a large space faring country going to the Moon or we have other smaller nations sending their missions to the Moon, neither of them wants to interfere with the other or crash into the other. It's very important that we don't have just bilateral engagements between individual countries, but that there is a global convening dialogue. And that's where we as UNOOSA leverage our unique convening power of the United Nations to keep everybody at the table and make sure that we continue to have these discussions – even if they are difficult – to hopefully advance on them. 

We have taken the initiative to organize a United Nations conference – the first one – on sustainable lunar activities. When we discuss important matters where you are debating on what the right answer should be, what are the critical issues are by specific caused by innovative activities like lunar activities , it’s important that they are discussed in Vienna. Because Vienna is where the decision makers on precisely these matters convene. At that conference, we hope to just explore what can we do to enhance the global dialogue at a multilateral level through the UN. 

UN News: Speaking about the use of the outer space, it's fair to say that there is now a major pollution problem. What is space debris? Why is it dangerous and what is being done to minimize its risks? So what's the UN angle here? 

Aarti Holla-Maini: When we talk about pollution in space, there's different angles that you can come at it from. One of them is, of course space debris, and there are different issues around space debris. One is, there are so many pieces or objects out there of all different sizes. And we do not necessarily have a comprehensive understanding of where they all are, at what time, and so on.

So, it's very important that we collaborate to pool knowledge and capabilities around this area here to enhance space safety for all actors: whether we think of satellite communications or imagery, which we rely on for climate change and climate monitoring, or whether we think of space science and the complex telescopes and instruments which are being placed into space. Debris is an issue for all of them. 

It's also a very important issue for human spaceflight. So, what are we doing? We have the ongoing discussions on long term sustainability guidelines, the COPUOS Member States are reflecting on what new guidelines could be potentially added to those which there and at UNOOSA level. We will be convening later on this year, a United Nations Space Bridge around space situational awareness, which is created to bring different pockets of actors and different systems and providers who are out there together to see how can we facilitate coordination. How can we potentially imagine a ‘system of systems’ approach? 

We don't know what format it will ultimately take. And UNOOSA is not on a mission to turn the UN into some kind of a global space agency or have an operational activity here. Our job is to convene, to lead by convening, and we hope that we can facilitate progress through the dialogues that we that we help create. 

And if I can also just bring your attention to something else which is more of an emerging problem. It is around the topic of atmospheric ablation, a relatively new science. You know that there are many more launches happening into space than there were ten years ago. The question is what impact do the launch fumes have on the atmosphere? But also we have a lot more debris and old satellites which are being burned up in the atmosphere on re-entry. A lot, significantly more than there were some years ago. And so that also has an impact. 

We were approached by UNEP, the United Nations environmental program. And so, we are looking into that together and informing and educating ourselves around this emerging science. It may well be that we find that we're already in an urgent situation. We don't know, we don't know at this point. 

UN News: This brings me to the question about the Space4Climate Action initiative. What is it and why is it important? 


Aarti Holla-Maini:  We run a program called UN-SPIDER that is space-based information for disaster and emergency response. We all know that the number of severe weather events, natural disasters and everything which is happening as. Result of climate change and global warming are increasing year on year. Multiple national disaster management centres. They are working with spider in order to do early warning, monitoring, mitigation and so on. Whether it's for floods, drought on the one hand, all the way to forest fires, mosquito borne diseases, locusts devouring a crop and causing famine in particular country, right, all the way across. 

No one apart from UNOOSA has as mission and priority to facilitate the access of satellite data, and to make sure how to use it. So, whereas for other entities and agencies, space is an enabler for their diverse missions, for us it is our mission. It is our priority in itself. We want to make sure that every Member State who needs it is empowered and equipped with the tools: the data and the know-how, the capacity that they need to be resilient in the face of all the global shocks that are coming, and particularly those which are linked to climate. That's the work we do there and that's going to grow. 

UN News: Speaking of being properly equipped, it comes with the human factor. Do you see enough enthusiasm on behalf of the young generation in space science? 

Aarti Holla-Maini:  Yes, there is a Space Generation Advisory Council which convenes youths from all over the world, and they are very active. They are very concerned with the issues that are confronting us. Whether it's enabling space to deliver on the sustainable development goals like global healthcare, education for all, climate change and so on, or whether it's to do with space sustainability, we do see a lot of engagement with them. One of the programs that we run is Space for Women and we try to motivate the younger generation – girls and women – to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). 

We do have examples of great women who are breaking the glass ceiling: they're in leadership position across different parts of the space ecosystem. But there's not enough to pick from in the engineering schools and so on. So, it starts with the youth, and I think we probably need to do a lot more to encourage young women to look into getting into the STEM fields, but also simply to think that it doesn't matter whether you are technical and mathematical and scientific in terms of your skill set. I'm not. I'm certainly not. My skills are softer skills, it's languages, it's interpersonal communication skills. You know, I did a degree in law with German law and then I did an MBA. 

There is room for a very diverse skill set from the youth and we just need to raise awareness of all the different avenues and possibilities that exist within the space sector to show that this is not just for the geeks and the nerds who like engineering. It's really not about that. There's room for musicians, lawyers, artists – anything you can think of – to be part of this very dynamic and innovative sector, which is so exciting today. 


Technological advances have transformed space exploration, making it more accessible but also more commercially driven, a senior official with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has been telling UN News, ahead of the international day that marks the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. 

Thanks to private capital, missions to study the Moon have surged, accompanied by a significant rise in space launches over the past decade. 

But these developments raise questions about the regulations governing space, increasing space pollution and diversity within space agencies, UNOOSA Director Aarti Holla-Maini, tells Anton Uspensky.

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Anton Uspensky, UN News
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