Legal and military headaches are standing in the way of data-sharing for GPS, remote sensing and other types of Canadian-used space assets, according to several speakers at the Canadian Space Summit on Sunday.
The representatives from McGill University, the University of Manitoba and the government’s Canada Centre for Remote Sensing said innovation will depend on mutual collaboration, and also on improving existing pacts such as international trade-in-arms agreements.
In the case of GPS, the United States and the European Union inked an agreement in 2004 to make the global positioning systems in the two countries interoperable.
This will make users of Europe’s Galileo – the first non-military navigation system – able to switch to GPS when the need arises, and vice versa, with no impact on users.
“In the end they can basically back each other up or improve each other’s weaknesses,” said Michael Dodge, a law-degree candidate from McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law.
Differing Definitions of “Treaty”
Talks are still in the early stages – both entities released receiver performance data this summer for the two systems’ interoperability – in part because of the legal ramifications of such an agreement, Dodge said.
The United States and Europe differ on the definition of an international treaty; Americans see it as an intergovernmental agreement while Europe treats it as a formal piece of legislation.
Also, in the case of a system failing, there would have to be agreement on where to assign tort, or fault. A GPS failure currently has an immunity waiver under the U.S. Federal Tort Claims Act, Dodge said, while Galileo failures can get immunity waived if it “impedes the course of justice.” “This is a murky area of future law,” Dodge added.
A presenter from the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing added the country needs to leverage international data since a lot of remote sensing crosses borders, and sharing between countries will help both sides more than keeping it apart.
“(Satellites) are billion-dollar assets. How do we make them useful?” said Gordon Deecker, a member of the Natural Resources Canada Centre.
NRC has open, sharable data dating back to 1972, he added, focusing on areas such as monitoring winter roads in the Canadian north, emergency response for Red River flooding and other natural disasters, and environmental change within forests.
But in the face of such open government data, defence remains the important “white elephant” in the room, cautioned Jim Fergusson, the director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
Arming satellites in space to defend against others, and knowing how to conduct defence operations in self-interest, can sometimes fly against the openness nations like Canada have historically talked about.
“In the 1990s, Canadian policy thought there was an opportunity (in space), and centred its argument on a moral one. Space is a pristine, space is a sanctuary. Look at land, and what we’ve done to it.”
Protecting Space from Debris, Warheads
Historical precedent from the Cold War, and political reality in the time since, is bringing about a “more nuanced” view from policymakers both in Canada and worldwide, Fergusson added.
He lauded the Canadarm for discouraging Soviet arms in space because it “scared the hell out of the Soviets”.
Yet he added the lack of desire to put nuclear warheads on satellites during the Cold War came because first strike would be too “scary” for the United States and Soviets, who feared what the other side would do in the case of a devastating attack that could wipe out a capital city in one blow.
Long after the Iron Curtain fell, this gentleman’s agreement is just that for the moment. Fergusson called for more sanctions to prohibit warheads in certain orbits above the Earth, particularly the commercially lucrative GPS geosynchronous track.
With the potential of devastation on Earth, or an exploding satellite causing impenetrable debris in space, the need for legislation is an urgent one, he said.
“If you go down the path of the Canadian approach, all or nothing, you are going to get nothing,” he warned.
“Nothing will change, proposals will continue, and we will continue on the path of spinning our wheels to expand the provisions as little as possible.”