Outer Space Policies with Dr. Marius-Ioan Piso (COPUOS Chair and ROSA President), Part II
Updated: May 14
We are back with the second part of our interview series with Mr Marius Ioan-Piso, President of the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA). If you haven't read the first part on space research and technology, click here!
As a pioneer in the Romanian space sector, Marius-Ioan Piso contributed to the establishment and leadership of ROSA and the Institute of Space Science. Over the years, he initiated national research and development programmes in space, aeronautics and security. His life activity in the sector gave him a higher level of understanding of the space domain and space policies.
APECS: You are currently Chairman of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS). What is the role and mechanisms of COPUOS in promoting cooperative efforts in space exploration and in capitalizing on the benefits of space technologies for the sustainable development of Earth and space?
Marius-Ioan Piso: COPUOS is the only global coordination committee for space activities.
It was established out of necessity, with the space race's initiation and the development of nuclear weapons in 1945. The space race did not start in 1957 with the first satellite launch, but earlier out of the arming race. The Russian Sputnik did nothing but transmit some radio signals. Two months later, the American satellite called Explorer 1 was launched, and it discovered the radiation belts. Satellites were undestroyable military assets.
Things evolved on the military side, rolling then into a civilian spin-off in telecommunications and the Earth's observation. Because the first geostationary satellite was launched, I could watch the first TV broadcast, the Tokyo Olympics, in real-time in the `60s. That satellite, of course, had military purposes as well.
COPUOS was set to keep the balance in the evolution of the space field. The first achievement of this committee was a legal one, the establishment of the "Declaration of Legal Principles" in 1963 and then the first treaty, "The Outer Space Treaty" (1967). Until then, space had been the equivalent of the territorial waters.
In the missile crisis in Cuba, the USA used satellite images to expose the Russians' intention to set up a military base in Cuba (to launch missiles from a distance of 100 km from Florida and Cape Canaveral). Meanwhile, the Russians shot down the American U1 plane, but the satellites were not reachable. All the cold war was based on satellites.
In the late 1960s, as space applications developed, the committee evolved in the direction of facilitating the use of space technologies by the developing countries.
The first example was India, which in 1972 managed to cover all its territory with TV transmission. The regular TV transmission was available through ultra-short waves spread over short distances, so massive TV towers had to be built in Europe. India bought a geostationary satellite and only needed to install about 3,000 satellite dishes of 2-3 m to receive TV image. It had a massive impact on the political stability of India.
The traditional space applications are telecommunications, Earth observation (used in maps, climate changes, weather, natural resources management, pollution monitorisation) and satellite navigation (GPS).
Banks also secure their online transfer with time from satellites.
There are also integrated applications like precision agriculture. The USA has used satellites since 1969 to provide information about parcels in order to optimise irrigation, fertilisers, and protect the crops from pests. The spectral resolution was high enough to distinguish between types of plants. The result was an increase in productivity by 50-60-%. In Europe, a higher resolution is necessary because of the higher fragmentation of the parcels. If the US grain exports decline, it can lead to a food crisis, so these satellite systems are considered critical infrastructure.
In the 1990s, COPUOS orientation returned to global security. In 1992, a meeting was held in Washington between Russia and the United States on the new space agenda. In the new political context, the USA had access to Russian missile technology. During that meeting, strategic issues were discussed in the space field after the end of the Cold War. COPOUS' headquarters were moved from Washington to Vienna, an internationally recognised diplomatic centre. The UNISPACE III conference marked the end of the applications era, and the global security orientation began.
Long term sustainability of outer space activities means how to make exploration sustainable to keep the space clean. For this purpose, the Committee issued guidelines.
Another goal of space exploration sustainability is planetary defence and space weather.
An asteroid impact is a common event, e.g. craters on all celestial bodies. Jupiter was hit in 1994 by a comet. The Earth has been impacted several times. (e.g. near Cancun). Such an impact could nullify life, leaving only microorganisms on Earth. To address this issue, I was among the initiators of the Planetary Defense initiative at the UN. It is also an agenda item for the International Academy of Astronautics, where I currently serve as vice president.
For 20-30 years, we, as a civilisation, have been in a complicated position. Every day we discover objects that could impact the Earth, and the more observation systems we add, the more things we discover. Some we cannot see, e.g. if they come from the Sun because the sunlight is too strong for the objects to be seen. This monitorisation came with a great responsibility for life on Earth.
By the 90's we became more aware of this danger. In 1995 Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs made a study and established a degree program, from which they initiated a series of approaches to the UN. The topic was also debated in 1999 at the UNISPACE III Regional Preparatory Conference organised in Bucharest (Romania).
Nuclear weapons are used in movies to destroy the asteroid that is going to impact the Earth. In reality, the asteroid splits into two or more parts and becomes more dangerous. In 2005 we agreed to use the term deflection.
The method currently being researched by NASA and ESA is the impact approach. As the asteroid heads for Earth, its trajectory is slightly changed. Two space missions were set up to test this approach. One is developed in Europe by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, an asteroid impact mission (AIM) called AIDA, now renamed Hera. The United States has created a vehicle called DART. Didymos is a large binary asteroid system with a smaller asteroid the size of the pyramid of Cheops, called Dimorphos. The two will approach in a few years about 3-4 million km from Earth. The plan is for the DART vehicle to collide with the small asteroid to change its orbital period (preserve the kinetic moment). ROSA is involved in this mission with about 5%, quite a lot, to produce a laser altimeter, the unity for image processing and part of the GNC system (guidance, navigation and control). Hera will have two small satellites that will "spy" on the asteroid's surface and carry the system that will measure what will happen after the impact. So this is one of the lines of the UN: planetary defence.
Another very important goal is demilitarisation, i.e. disarmament in space or non-weaponisation. Within the army, any non-consumable object can be used as a weapon, so when the object is built, it must be resistant to possible impact.
A communications satellite is a weapon if it's in the military. An Earth observation satellite can be a weapon when used to guide an attack with drones or planes remotely.
The space militarisation happens at 1,000 km as an observation zone and continues over 20,000 km from Earth and beyond, such as the Moon.
Demilitarisation means establishing a series of rules in this regard. Weaponisation must be kept under control and stopped.
APECS: You are also involved in space policies at the EU level. EU has identified the space sector as a "facilitator of EU strategic autonomy". What are the directions of the space strategy for Europe?
Marius Ioan-Piso: Europe needs space, in this respect, there was a first initiative, The Green Paper on European Space Policy, which was adopted by the European Commission in 2003, after a series of consultations of a group I was part of, led by former Swedish premier Carl Bildt. The draft paper stated that Europe had to ensure its strategic independence in space, develop a space program, and solve mechanisms through which countries could collaborate. These are the three pillars of the European space policy. Then it turned into a White Paper adopted by the European Commission.
In parallel, the European Commission initiated the space applications program. The first Galileo system started officially in 2000-2001. A second initiative called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) is now called Copernicus, the Earth observation system.
In 2008 the Lisbon Treaty included space in Article 179 Research and Technology, Development and Space, so space was stated as an independent field. Now we have a general direction called Defense Industry and Space (DEFIS). Space was under Digital Enterprise until last year; now, it is separately along with defence in Ursula's mandate. (Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission ).
The European Commission is funding the flagship programmes: the navigation system Galileo (which is currently operational and fully functional in 2024) and the Copernicus satellites system. In 2010, it was named Kopernicus. A short story about the name choice: ESA came into conflict with Poland because the Germans write Copernicus with the letter "K". Both countries attribute his origin. Finally, a political statement was made that in Nicolaus Copernicus's time, the language of science communication was Latin, and in Latin, there is no letter "k".
Copernicus consists of a system of satellites called Sentinels, from 1 to 6, on different spectral bands, for pollution, for measuring the ozone layer, etc. The Galileo and Copernicus projects are monitored by ESA. Dr Josef Aschbacher occupies the position of director-general of ESA, starting with March 1, 2021. Historically ESA secures the technical part and makes the acquisitions. Still, the Commission said that procurement, because community money is involved, is taken over by an agency that no longer deals with research and development. So it was set up a separate agency managing the EU programs to take over procurement. (following the METEOSAT model - the European intergovernmental meteorology organisation, which manages meteorology satellites).
i.e. The scheme of spending money in ESA is different; it involves a fair return policy. Member states have mandatory financial contribution and optional ones to contribute according to their interests to the ESA’s budget. Galileo was overbid 170% because there is a geographical return which means if a state pays 1 euro, it receives back 1 euro in the form of a contract between ESA and a legal entity of that country. This is a great way for developing countries to develop technology. ESA undertakes to keep in the country the intellectual property that belongs to ESA but is in the use of the country that produces it until the conclusion of the intellectual property rights contract. ESA money is multi-yearly placed on a fixed priced contract. EU money is adjusted every year according to the budget and policies.
Note: This is a translation from the original Romanian language interview.
Marius-Ioan Piso at the International Academy of Aeronautics Summit, in Washington, 2010/ ROSA