Common Nonsense:Wait! Don’t Look Up!

【明報專訊】'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars', said Oscar Wilde. Indeed we have to look up sometimes to see the stars, well, unless you don't. What if a giant comet is right on its course to crush directly and squarely our planet Earth? Dare to look up? Dare to face the fate then?

Leonardo asks us to look up. Alas, not Leonardo da Vinci but Leonardo DiCaprio who plays the astrophysicist wearing both his hard science and soft heart on his face in the most recent Netflix blockbuster film Don't Look Up. The funny thing is that even if you dare look up, you may not see what is ominously coming to you until or unless it's edging close enough to you. DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence look up at their sky with the Subaru Telescope (seemingly not related to the maker of my dream car Subaru WRX!) and that's why they could spot the killer comet coming to wipe out our planet and the entire humankind way before it does. The pair then talk earnestly and endlessly about the coming Armageddon to be caused by the Deep Impact (you may know what I'm talking about if you're old enough to have seen the many fin de siècle films in the late 90s) with tears and toil, urging their government led by Meryl Streep to do what has to be done. But people are only persuaded when they are able to see with their naked eyes the comet burning the sky. Sorry, fellows, too late then!

Likewise, when we look up at the sky, we are unable to see the many satellites, space stations and even space debris over our heads, though we are quite sure that they're just hanging out there (confirm it with Wall-E if you disbelieve). It's even funnier that we may not know what on earth is regulating the space traffic, though we all have our feet firmly planted on the ground of this planet.

Our country with her pioneering aerospace technology (being one of the only three countries launching its manned spacecraft) and grand space mission (most recently she has teamed up with Russia to develop a lunar project rivalling the NASA-led Artemis moon program) could certainly see and feel through the sky. And she has rightly and accordingly acquired her stake and voice in the space affairs. Most recently Beijing has made a complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space about the two near-misses involving her Tiangong space station and the commercial satellites of SpaceX, Elon Musk's business vehicle for his aerospace adventures. In our Earthling's parlance, in last July and October the SpaceX satellites were travelling on the orbit where Tiangong was stationing (not stationary nevertheless!). And they were close enough that clashes were feared and Tiangong had to exert its 'preventive collision avoidance control' to avoid any hitting or being hit. Tiangong succeeded, bravo! Then why complain? Oh, I mean, why complain to the UN?

Though the satellites and space stations are orbiting in space, the laws and rules regulating these space objects are man-made ones which are crafted, negotiated, undertaken by nation states and enforced internationally on this earth. The space law isn't celestial but political. The starting point is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (OST) which was adopted by the UN and came into force on 10 October 1967. China is subsequently a signatory of the OST. Article I of OST opens its grand mission with these sublime lines:

''The exploration and use of outer space...shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic and scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.”

Embracing the above mission, OST carries provisions (mainly found in Articles VI and VIII) for the proper registration, control and liability of and arising from space objects launched by the state members. Satellites and space stations are surely space objects being so regulated. The responsibilities and liabilities of non-government entities (like SpaceX) are borne by the state member which has the supervision of those entities (US in the case of SpaceX). To your surprise or otherwise (depends on the extent of your imagination), there's by far no provision as to the regulations of the traffic in space in the manner of our earthly road traffic management. Thus you may not find the very applicable article in OST to discern whether it's our space station or Elon Musk's satellites which had to give way to the other. It's left to the state members' own regulations and, most importantly, good sense. To plug the exposed rabbit hole, the European Space Agency and the EU have proposed a practical Code of Conduct for space traffic operations. The UN also has its initiative in conceiving a space traffic management regime, though the progress is yet to be seen even with the aid of a Subaru Telescope.

The present is the biblical Chaos, the rule-making moment (perhaps the era of anarchy if you so choose to label) for space traffic. That perfectly explains why Musk keeps launching his SpaceX satellites carried by his reusable rockets. He now has more than 2000 SpaceX satellites orbiting in the vast starry sky (technically the low Earth orbit) right over the heads of the humankind, planning to further develop his stock as a constellation of 42000! He's acquired more and more stakes and even voices to make the future rules. On that account alone, Musk already deserves his status of the Person of the Year selected by Time. Of course Sir Richard of Virgin Atlantic and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin won't be too excited as Musk's competitors. Other states with space aspirations are equally and rightly put on alert too. China's recent slam on Musk and the US for clogging space is just ominous of the coming struggles for mastery in commercialising and even weaponising (or de-weaponising) space.

Space law used to be a cool subject discreetly kept in the ivory tower (in fact, not every ivory tower on earth teaches this sub-branch of public international law). Now it's becoming a hot beauty to be courted. Perhaps one day when you look up at the starry sky, you may find a glittering constellation of shinning space lawyers. I, even in the gutter, am looking up and looking forward to that. Cheers!

■ by Lawrence Lau•劉偉聰

​Lawrence is a life debater who has to debate with his life. Being a barrister makes him a living while reading and writing gives him a life. Meet his cat 寅恪.

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