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#SpaceWatchGL Feature: Survey on space norms highlights issues

By Jessica West and Gilles Doucet

Photo by NASA on Unsplash.

Specialists in space security constantly call for more responsible norms of behavior in outer space. As the number of users and uses of space grows, the calls get louder and more urgent. Meanwhile, many states claim to want the same thing. Canada’s national defense policy, “Strong, Secure, Engaged,” for example, aims to “provide leadership in shaping international norms for responsible behavior in space.” But there has been little action so far.

A research project, conducted by Dr. Jessica West of Project Ploughshares and Mr. Gilles Doucet of Spectrum Space Security, and funded by a policy-focused research grant from the Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) program of the Canadian Department of National Defence, supports a step in the right direction. It explores how existing and emerging norms of responsible behaviour in outer space—many of which relate to safety and sustainability and were developed by civil and commercial sectors—might be applied to space-based security activities and practices.

In the most recent stage of the project, 102 global space experts from 15 countries responded to a series of survey questions. Their knowledge and insights added much new and valuable material.

Survey highlights

Responses reveal a chasm between outer-space practice and norms. While safety and sustainability norms are strongly believed to have a positive impact on the outer-space environment and to be directly relevant to military and security actors and activities, they have not been fully adopted. Instead, survey respondents repeatedly claim that current military activities in space threaten both safety and sustainability.

Still, 77 percent of survey respondents believe that there are norms or practices specific to security that do influence military or defense activities in space. These norms provide value, by reducing the number of mishaps and misconceptions, as well as the risk of conflict escalation. However, responses also show that the values and practices that influence military security in outer space are shifting.

Current and potential activities that challenge historical perspectives include:

  • non-consensual rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO),
  • anti-satellite testing,
  • potential weaponization/use of force,
  • lunar exploration and resource extraction.

Answers also provide a striking range of emerging military activities of concern. There is clearly a distinct gap between what military and security actors should do and what they are doing. Fortunately, the survey also provides some clues on how to span that gap.

Next steps

From the survey we learned that the opportunity exists to extend norms of best practices for safety and sustainability into the security domain. Specific measures include:

  • Debris prevention and mitigation in the context of weapons tests or the use of force
  • Enhanced sharing of Space Situational Awareness data
  • Rules to enhance the safety of non-cooperative rendezvous and proximity operations
  • Expanded notification for a wide range of activities, including launch, orbital maneuvers, weapons tests, and potential radio-frequency interference
  • Better identification of strategically sensitive satellite systems, such as those linked to nuclear command and control or verification of arms control agreements
  • Efforts to better coordinate and protect the radio-frequency spectrum

How do we achieve these new behavioral norms? A key message from the survey is that nothing will happen without major buy-in from states. Some state or group of states must be prepared to take a leadership role, in partnership with commercial and civil-society stakeholders.Ultimately, this research project aims to produce a roadmap of the existing normative landscape of outer-space activities, with directions on how to expand it.

The first stage of this work involved identifying and recording sources of norms and their content from the growing collection of public documents. The survey helped to verify these findings and fill in gaps, particularly those related to actual normative behavior.

The final stage of the project will refine this map and fill in the gaps. Once again, the researchers will reach out to experts with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. If you have not yet contributed to this project, it’s not too late! Contact Jessica West.

The full survey report is available here.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Jessica West, PhD, is a Senior Researcher at Canadian peace research institute Project Ploughshares and Managing Editor of the Space Security Index annual publication. Her research and policy work is focused on technology, security, and governance. She holds a PhD in global governance and international security from the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University where she worked on the confluence of military and medical modes of containment and resilience.


Gilles Doucet is an independent space security consultant and President of Spectrum Space Security Inc. Doucet’s consultancy focuses on the convergence of satellite technology, space governance and international space security cooperation. Doucet is Technical Lead of the drafting committee for the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS). Doucet also instructs in satellite and space security at the Cybersecurity LLM program at St. Thomas University School of Law. Prior to founding Spectrum Security Inc., Mr. Doucet spent 35 years as a research scientist with the Canadian Department of National Defense conducting studies and assessments on space technology, military applications, and advising on space policy, international cooperation, and defense diplomacy.

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