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Orbital Police? How Open Source Intelligence Can Aid Diplomacy and Space Norms in Low Earth Orbit and Beyond

By Anna Linvill

 As a 10 year old child in Britain, Jonathan McDowell became fascinated by a community of Ham radio operators sharing open source radio intercepts of Russian satellites. As a teenager, he joined The British Interplanetary Society, the world’s oldest independent space advocacy body, beginning a lifelong passion for independent, community based knowledge sharing on outer space issues and potential development.

 Now an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Dr. McDowell still takes time out of his busy schedule to share his observations of all the bright little blinking objects traversing the night sky with anyone who is interested. “I have become the fact checker for outer space”, Dr. McDowell jokes during a Duke University Rethinking Diplomacy Space Diplomacy Lab webinar December 16, 2022.  

 In 1989, he began keeping a no-frills, cross referenced catalog of geosynchronous satellites and their current locations, a database of international rocket launches, and an up to date account of activities at the International Space Station. Every other week, he publishes “Jonathan’s Space Report”, a newsletter which, because of its precise attention to detail and political independence, has become the journal of record on space industrialization, and a valued resource for academics, journalists, and policy makers alike. 

“My car is currently orbiting Mars” -@Elon Musk 

 “Well, no. It’s orbiting the Sun, and occasionally passes the orbit of Mars. Not the same thing.” –@planet4589 (Dr. Jonathan McDowell) 

 “Who died and made you the orbital police?” -Alonso@TGT OAR 
“Johannes Kepler” –@planet4589 (Dr. Jonathan McDowell) 

 McDowell famously called out NASA in 2001 for not reporting launches as required by its obligations to the UN Convention on Registration of Outer Space Objects (1975), UN Resolution 1721B (1961), UNR 1721B (1961), and the Convention (1975), important resolutions designed to restrict military activities in outer space, preventing the deployment of weapons of mass destruction that could endanger all of us.  

 In an atmosphere of distrust and rising tension among Earth’s major nuclear powers, and the alarming decline of international norms respecting national sovereignty, this is no trivial matter. Responding to those critical of his outspokenness on the U.S. failure to comply with international conventions, Dr. McDowell does not waver. “Independent analysts such as myself can reassure the world that the scope of military activities of the spacefaring nations are known, at least in broad outline.” Dr. Lindsay Gray, an RDP affiliated fellow (CDRF Global) agrees. “We can all be Orbital Police, naming and shaming governments and corporations that misbehave.”  

 Asked by Space Diplomacy lab co-founder Dr. Benjamin Schmitt whether governments could secretly place weapons of mass destruction in outer space, Dr. McDowell smiles, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “You can’t classify space. Satellites are bright, naked eye objects, easy to follow with binoculars, a stopwatch, and a little bit of math.”  

 Dr. McDowell has even gone so far as moving his newsletter from his Harvard domain to a private one, saying, “I want to maintain my independence.” With the relatively recent addition of open source resources like Planet; a network of satellites that image the entire Earth every day, the ADS-B exchange tracking aircraft, and the AIS Marine traffic tracking system, scientists like Dr. McDowell, along with hobbyists, activists, and journalists can not only take Twitter pot shots at Elon Musk, they can also pull together different sources of public information to get a better sense of the big picture both in space and in otherwise inaccessible and dangerous conflict areas like Ukraine. 

 Dr. Britt Lundgrin, a Duke Space Diplomacy Lab affiliated fellow, notes that while war in space is at the top of most people’s list of concerns, a more mundane but very real threat to our safety on Earth are the mega constellations of satellites that are held in low Earth orbit. There are tens of thousands of satellites orbiting Earth today, and that number is growing. Satellites are constantly being decommissioned, destroyed, and replaced. When Russia destroyed a satellite in late 2021, it created thousands of fragments of debris, which forced the International Space Station to alter its course to avoid a dangerous collision. “There is an increasing risk not only to valuable assets and personnel in space, but to people on the ground.” Dr. McDowell agrees emphatically, “The risk of objects surviving an uncontrolled re-entry is increasing exponentially. Even those objects which disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere are adding metals that could potentially change its chemistry. We do not yet know what impact this will have on the environment.” 

 Overcrowding in space is a potential issue as well. Dr Giovanni Zanalda, co-chair of the Duke Space Diplomacy Lab, is particularly interested in areas called LaGrange Points, where the gravitational pull of one celestial object (Earth, Moon, or Sun), can be played off another’s– a clever way to save fuel. Because of this neat trick of physics, there tends to be more crowding in these areas. Dr. McDowell points out that while there is still a lot of room in space, the Earth-Moon LaGrange Points are very much in play. “It isn’t a problem yet, but it could be.” It is becoming increasingly urgent that policy makers and diplomats get ahead of these emerging issues around the industrialization of space. “Sometimes satellites are decommissioned and left there for 25 years. To prevent potential collisions, they really need to be taken out of orbit within one year of decommissioning. Creating standards for doing that safely needs to be a top priority.” 

 While McDowell is not very optimistic about the effectiveness of international treaties in today’s climate of mistrust and increasing geopolitical competition, Ambassador Robert Pearson (Ret), a fellow in Duke’s Rethinking Diplomacy program, takes a different view. An outspoken advocate of Anticipatory Diplomacy, he believes that even when not all countries sign on to agreements or countries tiptoe around their treaty obligations, soft diplomacy and multilateral agreements are important norm setting tools.  

 The economic value and potential cost of operating in a totally lawless environment is too high. “Everyone has an interest in making space safe and peaceful.” The Artemis agreement, while seen by China and Russia as a cynical U.S. effort to dominate emerging opportunities around Moon-based activities, has attracted more than a dozen smaller countries. If a majority of countries can agree to shared rules and norms, it becomes increasingly difficult for countries and commercial interests to ignore them. Space, like the sea, is inherently global. There is a role both for governments and for civil society in making sure governments and industry explore the wonders and opportunities of space responsibly and sustainably. 

 This webinar is part of the Space Diplomacy Webinar Series organized by the Rethinking Diplomacy Program with a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund. You can watch the webinar on our YouTube channel.