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Tag: space

Applying the Ways of the Sea to Outer Space: A Conversation Hosted by Duke’s Space Diplomacy Lab

Whether it was Marco Polo traversing the Silk Road (which was more like Silk Routes), Columbus sailing the ocean blue, or even Moana restoring the heart to Te Fiti; oceans have been integral to our way of life as humans for thousands and thousands of years.

The Silk Road, mapped
The (fictional) story of Moana draws from (true) Polynesian history and seafaring lore

But humans have always been bad at sharing – most wars are fought over territory, land especially. And as time has passed, the things we share as humans has evolved – from oceans and land to the Internet and outer space. So how do you keep things diplomatic? Last Friday, Duke’s Space Diplomacy Lab, co-chaired by Dr. Benjamin Schmitt of Harvard University and Duke’s own Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, hosted a webinar on what space diplomacy can learn from ocean diplomacy. Featuring Dr. Clare Fieseler of the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Alex Kahl of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the conversation covered everything from zoning to equity to even the lessons we can learn from Indigenous communities.

Sharing data and sharing fish

There are multiple challenges to sharing the world’s waterways. Fieseler did not start out her career studying ocean diplomacy. Initially stationed in the Persian Gulf, building a marine mammal monitoring network, she noticed that the fraught state of politic affairs in the region made it hard to share data on the animals that were washing up on the shore.

Dr. Fieseler presenting

Meanwhile, Kahl, who works in Hawaii as the National Resources Manager at the National Marine Fisheries Service, runs into problems not in sharing data but primarily in sharing fish. “How do you focus on the shared exploitation of a natural resource?” he asked.

Two key themes arose in linking the sharing of the ocean to the sharing of outer space.

First, Fieseler pointed out that engaging scientists can help in transcending politics, something that ocean diplomacy does well. She pointed to efforts to establish a Marine Peace Park between North Korea and South Korea, and that if two of the worlds most polarized countries could come to an agreement in the name of science and human betterment, then “surely other countries can too.”

Second, Kahl remarked, unlike in the ocean, the primary resource in space is, well, space. You need fish to eat to survive – do you need space to survive?   

Centering equity

On the topic of whether we really need space in space to survive, Kahl pointed to the significance that many celestial bodies have in cultures here on Earth, such as in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Does interfering with these celestial bodies cross a red line for cultures on Earth? It’s worth noting that as Kahl said, with space exploration, “very few people are profiting,” so balancing the interests of people on Earth as well as in space is important.

Dr. Kahl presenting

Fieseler spoke to the need to build equity in space through some sort of formal agreement, similar to the Law of the Sea. But, she says, that might be skipping a few steps. Right now, “many developing countries can’t even afford to go to space.” How can you build equity in a region where not everyone even has a seat at the table? Kahl pointed out that this marginalization impedes discussions on how to share space – something that should be consensus-driven.

Zoning

As Fiesler remarked, zoning of the ocean has been key to a relatively peaceful sharing of this resource for the variety of uses that people have for the sea. A good example of this is the Antarctic Treaty, which zoned different places in Antarctica for scientific use.

Kahl spoke to being a beneficiary of the Antarctic Treaty – “it reduces bureaucratic burdens, and the collective benefits are also increased.” However, he made the point that the slicing and dicing of space, as with anything, could lead to initial tensions.

Science should have a seat at the table

A central theme that ran throughout the conversation was that, as Kahl put it, scientists “rely on each other to level-set the truth” – even in spaces where they might be in the minority, such as in a room of politicians engaging in diplomatic talks.

Fieseler pointed to how in environmental justice work, her Indigenous colleagues were good at taking the initiative – and finding the urgency – to demand a seat at the table. “As scientists, we sit around, thinking that one day the phone will ring and someone will invite me to be a part of the conversation – but that’s not how it works.” Diplomacy will always be a necessity as we aim to navigate sharing the vast resources at our disposal, but many scientists hope that we won’t forget to center the pursuit of the truth as we make decisions.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

What’s Up In Space? 3 Experts Weigh In

On Friday, February 25th, 2022 the brand-new Duke Space Diplomacy Lab (SDL) had an exciting launch with its first panel event: hosting journalists Ramin Skibba, Loren Grush, and Jeff Foust for a conversation on challenges in space within the next year. Moderated by Benjamin L. Schmitt of Harvard University, the conversation was in line with the SDL’s goals to convene a multidisciplinary group of individuals for the development of research, policy proposals, and solutions to mitigate risks in space.

In conversation, three key themes arose:

  1. U.S Russia Relations

With the current Russian invasion in Ukraine and the subsequent strain on U.S-Russia relations, the geopolitics of space has been in the limelight. Control of outer space has been a contentious issue for the two countries since the Cold War, out of which an uneasy yet necessary alliance was forged. Faust remarked that he doesn’t see U.S-Russia space relations lasting beyond the end of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2030. Grush added that before then, it will be interesting to see whether U.S-Russia relations will sour in the realm of space, simply because it’s questionable whether the ISS could continue without Russian support. However, Russia and NASA have historically acted symbiotically when it comes to space, and it’s unlikely that either party can afford to break ties.

2. Space debris

Major global players, from the U.S to China to India to Russia, are all guilty of generating space debris. Tons of dead satellites and bits of spacecraft equipment litter the areas around Earth – including an estimated 34,000 pieces of space junk bigger than 10 centimeters – and if this debris hit something, it could be disastrous. Grush paints the picture well by comparing spacecrafts to a car on a road – except we just trust that the satellite will maneuver out of the way in the event of a collision, autonomously, and there are absolutely no rules of the road to regulate movement for any other vehicles.

A computer-generated graphic from NASA showing objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites.

Skibba suggests that the best thing to do might be to make sure that more stuff doesn’t enter space, since the invention of technologies to clean up existing space debris will take a while. He also points to efforts to program new spacecrafts with graveyard orbit and deorbit capabilities as a necessary step.

3. Who is in charge of space?

Faust explained that commercial space exploration is moving incredibly fast, and legal regulations are struggling to keep up. Tons of companies are planning to launch mega-constellations in the next few years, for reasons that include things like providing higher-speed Internet access – something that we can all benefit from. Yet with new players in space comes the question of: who is in charge of space? The Artemis Accords are the existing rules that govern space at an international level, but they function as an agreement, not law, and with more players in space comes a need for legally binding terms of conduct. But as Grush puts it, “there’s a tension between the nimble, rapid commercial environment and a regulatory environment that wasn’t quite prepared to respond.”

The eight signees of the Artemis Accords

Beyond who rules over space, there’s also the question of decolonizing space. Skibba brings up that amidst a growing number of mega-constellations of satellites being launched, there are key questions being asked about who has access to space, and how we can level the playing field for more countries and companies to enter space exploration.

Space is uncharted territory, and to understand it is no small feat. While science has come incredibly far in terms of technological capabilities in space, it’s clear that we don’t know what we don’t know. But with a more multilateral, global approach to exploring space, we may just be able to go even farther.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

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