Portugal and the UN debate the future
of Space Sustainability in Lisbon

The High-Level Conference on the Management and Sustainability of Space Activities will contribute to the debate on the space sector at the United Nations Future Summit.

Addressing the emerging risks to the protection and sustainability of outer Space, which requires multilateral, inclusive, and sustainable governance, is urgent. This was the central message of the two preparatory symposiums for the Management and Sustainability of Space Activities Conference, which featured more than 81 speakers from 22 countries. Portugal’s joint conference with the United Nations (UN), through UNOOSA (United Nations Office for Space Affairs), will take place on May 14 and 15 in Lisbon.  

Preparations for the conference included a diplomat meeting organised by the Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations in New York, in conjunction with the Portuguese Space Agency, which brought together more than two dozen embassies. “Portugal is playing a crucial role at the United Nations level where, by organising the Management and Sustainability of Space Activities Conference, in Lisbon, it allows member states to freely debate the main issues for the future of space activities”, underlines Hugo André Costa, executive director of the Portuguese Space Agency.  

The Lisbon conference is guided by Policy Brief 7: For All Humanity—The Future of Outer Space Governance, published in May 2023 by the United Nations Secretary-General. This publication is part of several preparatory activities intended to contribute to preparing the Summit of the Future, which the UN is hosting in September. 

“The sustainability of space operations is one of the main concerns at the global level and also in the Portuguese Strategy for Space, which advocates the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all states,” says Hugo André Costa. 

“The respective roles of COPUOS and UNOOSA are increasingly critical, especially considering that space governance has become more complex with multiple public and private stakeholders and an ever-increasing number of satellites”, states Aarti Holla Maini, director of UNOOSA. “It may be daunting, but managing space traffic and ensuring the long-term sustainability of outer space activities is paramount.” 

For his part, the Portuguese Space Agency executive director recalls that “the industry is working at a speed that needs to be matched by the development of an appropriate regulatory framework. A global effort is needed, and no one can act alone”. 


UN advocates for new governance frameworks 

In Policy Brief 7: For All Humanity—The Future of Outer Space Governance, the United Nations Secretary-General recommends to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) the development of a legal framework aimed at the sustainability of Space and which “would foster transparency, confidence-building and the interoperability of space operations in Earth orbit and beyond, including on the Moon and other celestial bodies”. Alternatively, it is recommended that COPOUS “consider developing new governance frameworks for various areas of space sustainability”, namely space traffic management, resource exploitation and the control or removal of space debris. 

These were the three main topics of the discussions held in November 2023, during the Technical Symposium, and now in March at the Policy Symposium — all the sessions can be viewed on the conference website. 

Experts argue that more inclusive governance in the protection of Space as a common good for humanity entails the use of common standards, sharing of best practices, definitions and modes of interoperability, whether in the creation of global standards for the localisation of space objects, operational coordination to make Space safer; or in the establishment of standards and principles for the active removal of debris or the development of a regulatory framework for the sustainable exploitation of space resources. 

There is also an urgent need to promote close international collaboration to share data to reduce the risk of collision, harmonise regulatory frameworks for space operations or invest in advanced tracking systems and active debris removal. Finally, it is essential to strengthen capacities to raise awareness of the challenges of space debris and the importance of sustainable space practices. Exploitation, use of space resources, and the need to ensure the safety of people and goods in Space should also be considered.  

By championing the cause of space sustainability and governance, you will safeguard outer Space as a peaceful, accessible domain for future generations. We are not yet at the point of Climate Change where the youth have lost faith in those in power, and we don’t want to reach that point. We have a chance to get it right”, states Aarti Holla Maini. 

Evoking the importance of space technology for the daily lives of humanity, but also in the management of natural accidents, fires or disaster situations, Aarti Holla Maini called on the representatives present at the New York conference to “not consider Space as a rich country, sci-fi, add-on; something that comes after all the other real challenges of climate change, poverty, hunger etc. that we have here on earth because it is not. It is an invisible driver for alleviating suffering across all these challenges and is crucial to the broader goals of sustainable development and international cooperation among UN Member States”. 

The programme for the conference on the Management and Sustainability of Outer Space Activities includes a first day of work in which the conclusions of the preparatory symposia will be presented and discussed and a second day dedicated to interventions by Member States.  

Portugal Space
25 of March, 2024