As companies ask what can we do in space, academics focus on another question

As companies ask what can we do in space, academics focus on another question

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should," warns Jeff Goldblum's character, Ian, in the classic film, Jurassic Park.

But in the case of Australia's entry into the great space race, there are already people in the nation's capital asking exactly that.

UNSW academics and space ethicists Stephen and Nikki Coleman.

UNSW academics and space ethicists Stephen and Nikki Coleman.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

UNSW Canberra academics Dr Stephen Coleman and Reverend Doctor Nikki Coleman are military ethicists, who have turned their minds to the implications of humanity's move towards the stars.

"My area of speciality is that I look at war in space, and in particular space security and how it relates to our national security," Reverend Coleman said.


"I also look at terrorism in space and how that might impact people on Earth - and how we might prevent it - and in my space bioethics work I look at how we experiment on astronauts and space tourists and what impact that has on them and us."

The new Australian Space Agency will be based in Canberra for its first six months, although Victoria has launched a bid to base the agency permanently in the state off the back of its large manufacturing industry.

However one of the agency's core responsibilities will be to regulate Australia's civil space industry and ensure its activities are in line with our national interests and our international obligations.

According to the Colemans, once scientists answer all the 'coulds' about Australia's activities in space, a million more 'shoulds' spring up.

What should we be doing in space? Should anyone with money be able to do whatever they want up there?

Who owns the minerals we find in space? Should we allow people to go to Mars in the near future, even though we know the radiation they are exposed to on the trip will kill them sooner rather than later?

And how do we ensure the work we do in space isn't used to widen the gaps between the have's and the have not's?

While some of these questions relate to a future very far off, many do not.

For example, should we be shooting more satellites into orbit? Who's responsible for cleaning up all the space junk in the lower atmosphere?

The answer, Dr Coleman says, is not so simple.

"It's a messy problem. I mean it's more of a problem even than it sounds. Because with something like dumping rubbish in the oceans, if somebody developed a way of cleaning that up, and went and cleaned up all the plastic in the Great Pacific garbage dump, nobody would care. People might think, well, this is really nice. We're happy that you're doing it," he said.

"The problems is, if you start trying to clean up rubbish in space, any equipment or techniques or facilities that you use to clean up junk in space, can immediately also be used as weapons in space. If you can do stuff to alter the orbit to bring down an old satellite, you can use that on an active satellite."

Any attempt to clean up space junk could be seen as an "aggressive" action by other countries, Dr Coleman said.

He believes if major powers began to attack each other's satellites, it would have major ramifications for people on Earth.

"We rely on space so much now, and most people don't even realise, but it would be relatively easy to shove us back to essentially 1970s and 1980s technology, if we did terrible things in Earth's orbit. And suddenly we had all this junk up there that we couldn't deal with. It would make a massive difference to life on Earth. I think that that is highly likely if there's any sort of conflict in orbit," he said.

Reverend Coleman said humanity is at a critical juncture right now, and good decisions must be made about how we use space.

"For example, if we continue allowing people to leave dead satellites and rockets in space, we will end up with so much space debris in lower earth orbit that it will be unusable for future generations," she said.

"After coming back from the UN space security meeting my main concern is the glacial pace at which we make and change laws regarding space, especially because of the breakneck pace at which commercial groups are now entering space. We could easily slip into the 'wild west' if commercial space operators choose to ignore the laws and regulations, if we aren’t careful."

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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