Sri Lanka in the space age

| by Dr. Ruwatissa Abeyratne

( November 30, 2012, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) I was quite encouraged when I   read the President’s recent message to the nation on the launching of Supreme SAT-1 into orbit.    The President said in his message: “The launch of this satellite will be the beginning of more such ventures that will help promote Foreign Direct Investment, increase export earnings to the country, and help greatly in the transfer of technology within and outside this Region”.

This is the way to go, not only for national pride as Sri Lanka enters the space age but for the country’s advancement through partnerships.

A satellite could be used for communications and the creation of imagery.

In terms of communications the biggest beneficiary could be air navigation. In this context service providers and airline operators have to collaborate in ensuring a seamless global air navigation system.  Modern technology offers sophisticated air‑ground data communications by VHF (very high frequency)  and satellite, assisted by precise navigation by inertial/GNSS and computing  in air traffic services.  These will be used in the negotiation of “dynamic user preferred routes” offering various alternatives to airline operators which provide fuel and time savings.  However, such preferences for flight profiles and uses thereof will be subject to meteorological exigencies which have to be cautiously assessed.  This imposes an added burden on both the service provider and airline operator.  Judgment and interpretation will be critical factors in this  process, an inevitable corollary of which will be the need to examine legal aspects of the modern seamless air traffic management system.

Satellite imagery involves a process which uses cameras or sensor systems usually mounted on an orbiting satellite that capture light reflected from the earth’s surface. The fundamental principle of this imagery process is that natural and man‑made materials absorb and reflect varying quantities of light in different wavelengths and, through this absorption and reflection process, energy (light) enables satellite sensors to collect data by interacting with objects on the surface of the earth such as plants, soils and buildings in a way that makes possible the extraction of such data and information.  Such information is absorbed by the camera/sensor system on the orbiting satellite and transmitted back to earth in a digital format and transformed or converted to images that are capable of being interpreted by sophisticated image processing software.  This process makes satellite imagery ideally applicable to the requirement for detail pertaining to large area coverage such as regional cartography, environmental assessment, infrastructure planning and agricultural monitoring.

A significant development in recent satellite imagery through spatial information is the launching of the highest resolution commercial remote sensing satellite with an on‑board digital camera having the capability of producing one‑meter or better resolution at nadir to focus on the lowest point in the panchromatic, full spectrum mode and four‑meter resolution imagery in the red, green, blue and near infra‑red (NIR) bands. Such a one‑meter resolution will enable the user to distinguish between objects which are one meter in size on the ground if they have distinguishable physical and visual characteristics. Easily detectable under this spatial recognition system are stripes in parking lots, swimming pools, cars, trucks, boats, tennis courts, landscape features, all within their surroundings and environs.

Satellite imagery is not restricted to photography. New sophisticated electronic sensors enable even more powerful imagery that mere photos – digital data that can be analysed, processed and interpreted on computers – computer analysis in digital format admits of possibilities for data to be used in multifarious ways using differences in spectral responses from ground features. The usefulness of this process is emphasized and highlighted when satellite imagery is used in conjunction with the geographic information system (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS), which together can construct a complete model of an area.

The dynamic applications of a spatial satellite imaging system will be invaluable to attorneys, insurers and risk managers in acquiring data and information on natural and man‑made disasters. The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska are two such incidents which were tracked and recorded for use by television and major newspaper media. The most significant area of contribution is in prediction or preparation where, a satellite just overhead of a disaster area can identify through its imagery an impending disaster or occurrence.

At the incipient stage of remote sensing applications, the deployment of remote sensing satellites were for military strategic purposes, remote sensing can now be used to further scientific and discovery objectives. Commercial pursuit of remote sensing for scientific and discovery objectives, called civil remote sensing, is usually conducted by agencies, organizations and individuals who exploit remote sensing systems and data to promote the general welfare and provide for the public good. Commercial remote sensing may be impelled by the motive to make profit, either through procurement or sale of data obtained through sensing.

A legal regime applying a codification of customary legal principles calculated to bind nations and private enterprises through nations was set up in 1987 by the United Nations, when it adopted Resolution 41/65. This resolution was a carefully thought out one, which took the United States and other nations involved 13 years to draft, beginning 1974. The remote sensing principles, as established by Resolution A41/65 admit of access and distribution of data and information generated by remote sensing systems.  This activity has its genesis in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which stipulates that the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit of and in the interest of all countries, on the basis of equality.  Article IX of the Treaty embodies a principle of cooperation between nations and provides that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out by States parties in a spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance and with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other parties to the Treaty.

The basic principle of space law that addresses this issue is the "common interest" principle which emerged as a result of the first specific Resolution on space law of the United Nations General Assembly in 1958.  The "common interest" principle has since been incorporated in subsequent multilateral treaties, particularly the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, Article 1(1) of which provides that :the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

This provision, which binds signatory States is seemingly a departure from the traditional "national interest" approach of international law and has represented a moral obligation to some, while to others the provision has represented a or mandatory legal principle. Whatever be the approach taken by some States in refusing to share information and findings with other States, particularly those States that are sensed who request the sharing of such information. Since much of space exploration is conducted for the benefit of humanity, primacy must be accorded to those principles of law that entrench legal rules pertaining to human conduct and social benefit.  In this perspective, principles of space law, as contained in the space law treaties discussed above support the basic principles of human welfare applicable in the field of aviation.  Therefore, rules of conduct for States and other actors should be considered as being integral to the obligations of States whether or not they are enforceable at law.