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ESA Secretary at COPOUS

Updated: Jun 7

The European Space Agency (ESA) was first introduced to the public in 1975. It is an international organization comprising 22 member states. Their function is to regulate and oversee all space activities, including space excursions, satellite navigation, and observing Earth. The focus lies on the scientific part of development for the future of spacecraft. The ESA consists of two organs: the Director General and his staff, and the Council.

The representative Dr. Thomas Weissenberg is part of the ESA staff and holds the position of Secretary. He started off as an economist and assistant professor. After that, he continued working for DLR (Deutsche Luft- und Raumfahrt) as a Chairman. By chance, he ended up at the external department and got the job he holds now. He described his job and the company itself as very broad and diverse. On many occasions, he advised that everything in space and around should be kept simple but also detailed.

The ESA is a research and development organization that explores the solar system. It is primarily about international cooperation, and these discussions can also be affected by geoeconomic topics, like wars or political difficulties. Together with their international partners, they run many projects and missions. They also do Earth observation and secure connectivity. The Moon and Mars are two currently discussed topics.

The technology that is needed and is being developed takes a lot of time to become useful. The ESA is not a political organization, so it cannot set up rules, laws, or regulations. These are set up by member states and the EU. However, they represent Europe in Committees and the ESA advises the member states. The ESA is big and a permanent observer at the UNCOPUOS, while COPUOS can make rules and take charge. This cooperation is especially favorable for members who do not have big teams and employees who can help think outside the box. This gives them the opportunity to take advantage of having a bigger “thinking tank” that consists of 5200 employees. Currently, the main goals of COPUOS are to reduce space debris and provide long-term sustainability. Difficulties to accomplish them lie not only in answering the question of how to achieve these terms but also in determining which rules to use. One of the bigger issues is that they do not have binding regulations that can intervene in situations when needed, because the members cannot agree on which rules should be binding. The resolution is to use space law as a guideline.

The ESA structure is similar to that of the Parliament Council. They meet five times a year to discuss all the topics on the agenda. This is one of the examples mentioned that show the organization's weakness, which is that they are slow in their decision-making as at times it takes a few years for a topic to be integrated into the agenda.

Next up, Thomas Weissenberg informed the committee about the challenges the ESA faces, which all are interlinked with one another.

One of them concerns space traffic management. They launched many satellites in the last ten years (ten times as much as in the 60 years before), so they have many satellites in orbit by now. Space is getting crowded. This is a problem in need of a quick solution, because we do not have traffic rules in space yet, and they are urgently needed.

Most importantly, one of the biggest challenges is space debris and how to handle it. Space debris are very small parts from old space stations and satellites that float around in space at a speed of 30,000 km/h. Even tiny pieces can cause enough damage to destroy other satellites. Anti-satellite tests, in which a country destroys one of their own satellite used for espionage and radar observation to prove that they are capable of that, create even more space debris. Especially China, Russia, India, and the United States have carried out these tests too often. You can compare the space debris problem to climate change; they are both of the same importance. There is a huge awareness of this problem, but still, there are not enough actions. Weissenberg said that humans are nice but destroy everything on Earth and in space. Launching is soon not going to be possible anymore because of the space debris, but at the same time, to evoke change, we have to send up satellites and other objects. We need some kind of vacuum cleaner in space to remove all of the small pieces that are up there. The plan is to be in a “Zero State” by the year 2030.

Another big challenge is space resources and their technical and legal aspects. The most important question is, to whom does what belong in space, and are we even allowed to take things out of it? It is a difficult question with a variety of different responses and opinions in the UN discussions.

Additionally, there is also the matter of dark and quiet skies. The satellites' constellations disturb ground-based observations.

Lastly, there is the militarization of space, which is a frequent topic. The COPUOS stands for the peaceful use of space, but they have long lost this fight about militarization in space because it is a fact, and they will use it for this purpose. Thomas Weissenberg’s personal opinion on militarization in space is that he takes it as a fact but is not a big fan of weapons in general. It makes sense to use it for that reason, but it is not good.

At the end of the committee session, all participants had the opportunity to ask Thomas Weissenberg questions, which many did. He was generous and considerate and answered all of them to the best of his ability. While doing so, he reminded everyone in the room that he is not a lawyer or a Space-X expert. He complimented the engagement and was amazed by the many good and complex thoughts the delegates had on the matter and was very pleased with the results. Furthermore, he admitted that working in the ESA and being part of the COPUOS sessions can be boring as they take a long while, but he still enjoys his work. He explained that traveling a lot between his work in Paris and family in Cologne is part of his weekly routine, which is a task that is draining, but he mentioned it could be worse, and his family also sometimes visits him and stays for a weekend or a few days. All in all, it seemed as if his life and work are very well balanced, and one nor the other interrupts or intervenes with the other, even though space brings many troubles in itself.

Everyone in the the committee was very grateful for Dr. Thomas Weissenberg's contribution. and that he was so generous as to spend his time at this year's OLMUN to share his thoughts and explain the ESA and COPUOS from a firsthand perspective.

By Damaris Poppen & Femke Peters


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