April 21, 2022

Space Diplomacy Hackathon

Space Diplomacy HackathonThe National Science Policy Network’s (NSPN) Science Diplomacy Committee and Duke University Center for International & Global Studies (DUCIGS)/Rethinking Diplomacy Program(RDP)’s Space Diplomacy Lab both advocate for exploring diplomatic strategies for an accessible and peaceful environment in low-Earth orbit, translunar space, and beyond. To develop and support these goals, we recently offered a week-long hackathon for early career professionals and students.

This hackathon was an opportunity to engage deeply in issues pertaining to space diplomacy.  The event was geared specifically to early career professionals and students of all professional disciplines as an engaging learning opportunity for the diplomacy- and space-curious.

This hackathon didn’t just want to explore the nuances of space diplomacy; instead, it meant to deliver solutions to future and ongoing challenges beyond Earth’s orbit. As such, we invited diverse ideas that span across disciplines, specifically on how to avoid military conflict, and encourage the safe and sustainable use of outer space.

Prompts*

Hackathon designers have crafted three prompts (see bottom section) based on present and future challenges in space diplomacy. Each prompt also included a set of guiding questions. Hackathon teams were assigned a prompt, but they had to decide which of the guiding questions they liked to pursue further.

Timeline

The hackathon began with a half-day kick-off event on June 4th. During this event, the attendees had the chance to learn more about space diplomacy from three space diplomacy experts: Saadia M. Pekkanen (University of Washington), Frans von der Dunk (University of Nebraska),  and Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Space Diplomacy Lab co-chair). After the keynote remarks, hackathon participants had the opportunity to ask questions to the experts and to iteratively refine and develop their ideas.

Hackathon kick-off event (Saturday, June 4th)

For the kick-off event, we invited three keynote speakers and space experts to discuss the importance of space diplomacy and answer questions from participants. Watch the recording:

 

Hackathon closing event (Saturday, June 11th)

In the subsequent week, attendees worked within their teams and with the feedback of subject matter experts created a written and oral pitch deliverable. On the closing half-day event on June 11th, pitches were judged by a panel of experts: Giovanni Zanalda, Director, Duke Center for International & Global Studies(DUCIGS); Ambassador (ret.) W. Robert Pearson, DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy fellow); Dr. Lyndsey Gray, National Science Policy Network, Space Diplomacy Lab fellow.

Watch the recording of the closing event:

 

More information

Questions can be addressed to space.diplomacy.hackathon@gmail.com

 

*Hackathon Prompts

 

PROMPT 1: Low-Earth orbit security and space debris

       Over the course of three weeks in March 2025, personnel from the U.S. Space Force have observed a Russian Ministry of Defense-operated COSMOS-1 satellite engaging in unusual rendezvous proximity operations near the U.S. military imaging satellite SF-1 in low earth orbit.

       Suddenly, U.S. Space Force personnel document the emergence of a second, smaller satellite, COSMOS-2, from within the larger COSMOS-1 spacecraft. This confirms suspicions that the main spacecraft is what the Russian Ministry of Defense calls “matryoshka” or nesting doll satellite. COSMOS-2 rapidly passes within a few meters of SF-1 and rapidly exits SF-1’s vicinity, avoiding collision.  Nevertheless, shortly following the encounter, U.S. Space Force personnel witnessed a dramatic failure in the optical imaging capabilities of SF-1, followed shortly thereafter by a complete loss of radio communications and satellite on-orbit control.

       Early assessments by U.S. Space Force personnel led to the conclusion that the COSMOS-2 deployed a field of particulate obscurants to disable SF-1 – a technological capability that was previously unknown to U.S. officials. In the following days, U.S. Space Force observes the uncontrolled degradation of SF-1’s orbit until it enters the orbital area occupied by the first set of China’s recently-deployed SatNet internet satellite mega constellation, which acts as Beijing’s alternative to SpaceX’s  Starlink program. Ultimately, SF-1 collides with a SatNet satellite, creating a field of space debris that eventually disables dozens of SatNet satellites. The resulting destruction creates a long-term, ground-based internet blackout to populations in remote regions of sub-Saharan Africa that now rely solely on SatNet capabilities provided under the auspices of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the region.

Guiding questions:

  1. As the world becomes increasingly more dependent on space- and satellite-generated services, how can we ensure that nations without access to outer space are not left behind? What changes need to occur to ensure that they are not deprived of essential infrastructures in the event of space conflict?
  2. What legal, tech, or diplomatic strategies are needed to improve space traffic management, prevent catastrophic collisions, and remove space debris in low-Earth orbit?
  3. What improvements in cybersecurity policy and regulation are needed to protect international security, economic prosperity, and scientific knowledge?

 

PROMPT 2: Space technology’s impact in conflict resolution and humanitarian aid

Shocking and tragic images out of Ukraine appear to show Russian military actions reminiscent of the ruthless ground assault tactics documented in  the 1940s. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has disrupted Black Sea agricultural exports, pushing prices higher, and exacerbating high energy and fertilizer costs. As a result, many countries across the world are now facing food insecurity and shortages of critical supplies. The war has also caused a humanitarian crisis as refugees flee Ukraine to escape conflict.

Several private space industries have stepped forward to provide Ukraine and its allies with assistance at a level unprecedented in former global conflicts. For example, companies specializing in satellite-based, near-real time high-resolution optical and multispectral imagery have enabled open source intelligence analysts to assess Russia’s buildup of military equipment and troops before the onset of the war in February 2022 as well as the destruction that the Russian military has wrought since the beginning of hostilities. Likewise, SpaceX has publicly enabled its Starlink satellite-based internet system and provided ground-based receiver technology to the Ukrainian people after the onset of hostilities to help ensure an open information environment for the Ukrainian people as the Russian military targeted civilian infrastructure.

In November 2020 just months before the war began, the Russian military launched a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons test against one of its defunct, Soviet-era satellites. The resulting explosion created a space debris event that endangered personnel aboard the International Space Station, including those from Russia’s civil space agency, Roscosmos. Despite the dangers of using this class of weapons, Several European defense agencies have received intel that Russia may use them again. But this time, their target is a private sector space asset of another country that is being used by the Ukrainian people and government.

Guiding questions:

  1. What diplomatic and regulatory norms-setting considerations are needed to ensure that there are well-understood legal and policy responses to acts of aggression in space?
  2. How can space technologies deployed by private sector space technology firms be used for positive conflict resolution?
  3. How can space industries and space technology assist diplomats and provide humanitarian aid (e.g., determining civilian evacuation routes out of war zones, addressing food security issues and agricultural disasters)

 

PROMPT 3: Lunar mining and anticipatory diplomacy

Since the early 2030s, the Artemis Accords coalition has been furthering the initial mission first accomplished in the mid-to-late 2020s: return humans to the lunar surface. The year is now 2042 and the coalition is currently building permanent basing at various sites across the lunar landscape. The program partners heavily with private space sector corporations based in Artemis Accords nations. Through novel public-private partnerships, these industries not only deploy critical infrastructure supporting the basing, but also have begun developing the lunar regolith for extractive industries to return limited resources to Earth. This includes the isotope helium-3, which is abundant on the lunar surface and a key fuel for fusion energy reactors on Earth, which have recently been demonstrated to be commercially viable.

Meanwhile, the competing bloc to the Artemis Accords countries, led via a partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, has begun to make claims to swaths of the lunar surface where helium-3 is thought to be prevalent. This behavior has placed tension on existing norms for sovereignty off planet. During a routine resupply operation, a Chinese spacecraft module is jettisoned without personnel aboard and crash-lands within an area being mined for helium-3 by Artemis Accords private sector firms. Given the concept of sovereignty of the spacecraft itself, the Chinese government claims as sovereign the lunar surface around the crash site and announces its intention to assume helium-3 mining operations there, ignoring the activities of the Artemis Accords-flagged private sector firm.

Guiding questions:

  1. What sort of diplomatic responses do the Artemis Accords nations have to resolve this conflict?
  2. What sort of legal, regulatory, and environmental policy options are needed in order to protect the lunar ecosystem while also respecting the moon’s unique sovereignty concerns?
  3. What sort of standards and norms do private lunar mining corporations need to follow in order to not repeat past mining-related mistakes in Earth’s past (e.g., environmental exposures, worker safety, clean energy considerations)?