ROME – According to Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Jesuit research astronomer who runs the Vatican’s observatory, global interest in outer space is increasing at astronomical proportions, from mineral harvesting off asteroids, to militarizing the zone and developing artificial intelligence for research.
With the space race taking off internationally, there is a need for clearer parameters to be set for conduct, making space “the next frontier of law,” Consolmagno said.
Noting how 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations 1967 “Outer Space Treaty” on governing the activities of states in outer space, including the moon and other “celestial bodies,” Consolmagno said the treaty was followed by a major discussion on the “peaceful uses of space.”
While the United States and the Soviet Union were the only nations in space at the time, there are now some 20 nations that either have launched or could launch into space, and there are 90 nations that currently have some sort of space program.
One area that has seen an “explosion” of growth is the production of micro-satellites, which are cheaper and faster to build than before, meaning many more nations have satellites now.
“Suddenly the exploitation of space is a big deal. And this includes commercial entities,” Consolmagno said, and referring to the treaty, he said part of having a law on the peaceful uses of space is to ensure that as nations explore, no one gets in each other’s way.
“If you have satellites that are crossing each other’s orbits or leaving debris that will damage each other, then nobody wins,” he said, adding that another reason for a space law is to protect data and resources, meaning that when someone invests, they get to use their investment.
Yet part of the challenge of developing a law is to ensure that all the players in the field are convinced, including private enterprises, that it’s to everyone’s benefit to have rules and to follow them, “otherwise there’s no way of enforcing them.”
Consolmagno traveled to Vienna in June to represent the Vatican at a meeting on the space issue, reaffirming the peaceful uses of space and the right each nation has regarding the space frontier, because “any war that is going to occur in space is going to touch all of us.”
While the statement seemed like a no-brainer for most, U.S. President Donald Trump a week before the Vienna meeting took place in June, announced plans to establish the “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the American military, saying at the time that the decision was not only about the American presence in space, but it was also a bid to boost “jobs and the economy.”
“This time we will do more than plant our flag and leave our footprints. We will establish a long-term presence, expand our economy, and build the foundation for the eventual mission to Mars, which is actually going to happen very quickly,” Trump said, charging the U.S. Department of Defense and the Pentagon with forming the new military branch.
In his comments to Crux, Consolmagno said the announcement showcased the need for the Vatican to make statements about peace, even in space. The best thing the Holy See can do in this case, he said, is be an “outside, uncommitted” party reminding everyone of the universal benefits of following a set expectation for conduct.
On the mission to Mars, Consolmagno said that contrary to the aspirations of some, “it will not happen soon.”
“People do not appreciate the enormous difficulties of going to Mars compared to the moon. You get to the moon in a couple of days, it takes six months to get to Mars. That’s the first problem,” he said.
On another level, the moon is also encased in the protection of earth’s magnetic field, shielding it from radiation from the sun’s cosmic rays, he said, noting that this is not the case with Mars, meaning that with the technology that’s currently available, “you’re going to die in a month on your way there. You’re probably going to die within a couple of days because of the radiation.”
“We’ve never sent a rat to Mars and have it come back safely. A human being, given the technology we have today, we cannot do it safely,” he said, adding that neither does he want to attempt it, because it could contaminate the planet, making it difficult to tell what is native and what was launched when humans finally do land on the planet.
Mars, he said, “is a really likely place where life might exist now, or may have existed in the past, and if we spend billions of dollars in a thousand human equivalent lives in science and engineering to look for life on Mars and all we find is stuff that could have come from that rat we sent, we’ll never know!”
“One of the tremendous reasons for exploring another planet is to see how it is the same and how it is different from earth, and you always want to be careful that you do not contaminate it with what you’ve already got.”
Consolmagno also touched on the increasing investment in artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Just recently NASA asked Canada to join them in a new project to build an international space station 1,000 miles from its current location, partly to position it as a pivot point to Mars, and partly to explore lunar minerals.
As part of the deal, NASA is asking that Canada provide AI robotics for the project, a choice Canada seems open to, but has yet to confirm.
In terms of what impact AI technology could have in the space arena, Consolmagno said the only serious current option is sending a robot, and even then, the technology must be developed, since communication with earth could take from eight to 20 minutes, depending on where the shuttle is at, meaning the robot would essentially have to make decisions on its own.
Mars rovers currently used in space already have enough autonomy not to allow themselves to drive off a cliff, however, every day the scientists managing the rover hold a meeting where they tell it what to do, and then they have to wait a full day to see the results.
“With more autonomy, the rovers can go farther and do their job more efficiently, and allow us to explore more and faster,” Consolmagno said, adding that developments will happen “piece by piece.”
Both AI and virtual reality (VR) have made the space experience accessible to everyone without ever having to leave the stratosphere, and soon, they won’t even have to leave their house, he said.
These technologies, he said, are “really opening up the exploration of the universe, the actual exploration of the universe to more than just reading about it in the National Geographic.”
Yet in terms of what rules ought to be governing the conduct of nations invested in space projects, Consolmagno said “the laws are a little fuzzy,” and are really “only as good as what people will agree to obey.”
For people in the space business, the rule of thumb is that “if you can move it you own it, if you can’t move it, it belongs to all humankind.” However, “all that does is encourage people to come up with better ways of moving bigger and larger lumps. It’s a rule of thumb that’s going to break down eventually.”
Consolmagno said there are many companies which intend to exploit space for resources, including some that already have plans in place to harvest off asteroids within the next decade.
“What they’re going to find, how they’re going to exploit it, we don’t know yet, but it’s already happening,” he said, explaining that the companies are incorporated, and many are incorporated in Luxembourg.
There is currently a push to make Luxembourg the center for space resources, since it is both well-positioned in the European Union, yet small enough to avoid the major political issues a larger country would have to face.
Current space laws, which Consolmagno said are more like “mutually agreed agreements that everybody realizes that there has to be a way of regulating what happens,” are mostly designed to ensure that no one steps on each other’s toes, and that people who have made investments get to see a fair return.
Another crucial element of the agreements, he said, must be a universal recognition that space resources “don’t belong to anybody, but the effort to get at the resources do belong to the people who have put in the effort.”
“How you balance that is to be determined, but it’s something people are going to want to determine just to be sure that everybody has a way of protecting their own investment in what’s going on.”
Consolmagno said many experts currently exploring what rules ought to govern outer space also have expertise in the law of the sea, “because it’s really very much the same question.”
“The deep oceans belong to everyone, but who’s actually out there and extracting resources in deep oceans. They want to be sure that they can get their resources and that they are protected from piracy.”
In terms of the Vatican’s own input, Consolmagno said their role will not only be to ensure that any resources harvested are put to the service of humanity, but they will also likely serve as a broker between parties.
Recalling a joint meeting between the Vatican and the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs in March, which was held in Vatican City, he said the Holy See was able to host the gathering, which brought together scientists and diplomats alike, because “we’re neutral.”
“We’re not going to be exploiting space, we’re not big enough to have a space program, so when we speak, we can provide a space where all of these actors can come together on neutral ground.”