Clémence Robin

The International Charter On Space And Major Disasters

At the end of the 1990s, the space agencies wanted to make their satellites available for crisis management. The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters is an international cooperation agreement between space agencies. The principle of the Charter is based on making images and data acquired by Earth observation satellites available free of charge to the authorities responsible for organizing relief efforts in disaster areas, via a unified coordinated image acquisition and delivery system, regardless of the region of the world affected.

This agreement was set up in 1999 on the initiative of the French National Centre for Space Studies and the European Space Agency. This initiative quickly won the support of new partners. The CSA (Canadian Space Agency) joined the Charter in 2000, followed by NOAA/USGS (U.S.A.) and ISRO (India) in 2001, CONAE (Argentina) in 2003, JAXA (Japan) and UKSA (ex-BNSC, United Kingdom) in 2005, then CNSA (China) in 2007. These agencies take turns chairing the Charter every six months. Recently, the United Arab Emirates have asked to join this international agreement.

How does the Charter work?

Each space agency that is a member of the Charter cooperates voluntarily. There is no monetization. The actors undertake to provide free of charge the resources at their disposal to contribute to its functioning. Only those agencies that possess data based on Earth Observation and are in a position to provide it can be members of the Charter.

When can the Charter be activated?

The Charter can only be activated in the event of major disasters. It’s a brutal phenomenon creating a situation of great distress with significant loss of life or material damage. It is the authorized user (see below) who decides on this qualification. Examples include earthquakes, fires, floods or technological disasters that may occur in the event of a train or plane crash, or an accident in a factory or power station. It was also possible to activate the charter in the event of an epidemic to identify local hospitals and emergency response infrastructures. The request for activation can only be made and accepted in the response phase (from 10 days after the disaster has occurred). The Charter cannot be activated for slow progressing disasters such as droughts.

How to activate the Charter?

An activation can be triggered by an Authorized User (AU). There are 64 of them. In France it is the operational centre for inter-ministerial crisis management. There is one AU per country. However, it’s possible to trigger the charter for another country. Designated AUs call a confidential telephone number, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and fill in a user request form to be returned by email or fax. In certain circumstances, cooperation bodies/ organisations with which Charter members collaborate may also request data in the event of a disaster. A 24-hour on-call operator then receives the request. The operator transmits the information to an agent in charge of receiving distress calls (ECO). The operator then prepares an archiving and acquisition plan using available satellite resources, planning which would be the best satellites to use according to the AU’s request. This plan is submitted to the Space Agency concerned, which programmes their most suitable sensors if the demand can be met. See diagram at the end.

Has it already been activated?

Between its operational implementation in November 2000 and 19 October 2010, the Charter has been activated 280 times, and already 39 times since the beginning of 2010, notably for the earthquake in Haiti in January. “The frequency of activation is tending to increase. This can be explained by the fact that actors are increasingly familiar with the mechanism and the number of potential users is increasing” explains Eliane Cubero-Castan, CNES member of the Charter’s executive secretariat. The latest activations are extremely recent with the earthquake in Indonesia on 15 January 2021, but also with the flood in Morocco on 12 January 2021 and the flood in Bolivia on 4 January 2021. The Charter is used worldwide for monitoring natural disasters mainly related to meteorological, seismic and volcanic phenomena. It demonstrates the contribution of space to crisis management by facilitating the work of relief teams in the field.

What is at stake now?

The charter is a place to be” Helene de Boissezon engineer at CNES. Cooperation in the field of earth observation for crisis situations is present and working. However, it needs improvement, especially on crisis prevention rather than crisis response.

Biosphere 2: The Failure Of a Unique Experiment

The Biosphere 2 Experiment

What if humans were capable of creating, not in seven days but in a few years, a space grouping together the wonders of the Earth in a determined space?

Biosphere 2 is an experimental site that could be described as a giant greenhouse, created on a hermetic floor by concrete and stainless steel plates. It was built at Oracle in the Arizona desert. This huge project was undertaken by the Space Biosphere Adventura company, created by John Allen and Magret Augustine for about 200 million dollars, provided by a Texan billionaire. The experiment, named Biosphere II because Biosphere I is the Earth, aims to demonstrate the feasibility of space colonization by recreating the Earth’s ecological systems inside of an artificial habitat. More simply, the designers wanted to find out if we could go and live on another planet by taking a biosphere to live inside it and rebuild the Earth we live on there.

What is a Biosphere? It is essentially a sphere of life around the Earth, in this case totally closed and energetically open.

The crazy project extending over an area of 1.2 hectares with all the facilities, is totally isolated from the outside environment. It houses a tropical forest, water helmets, an artificial ocean, forest, savannah, mangrove, land reserved for agriculture, a human habitat with its private quarters and workplaces, as well as a basement floor for the technical installations. Hot and cold water circulated through a network of independent pipes in a complex system. In an interview, one of the designers said “it takes all of this to recreate that which Earth is doing everyday for us“. This project, even if it failed, particularly with regard to the recycling of air, had the merit of showing how difficult it is to control an ecosystem.

The missions:

Two missions were carried out in this building. The first lasted two years and the second 6 months. During the first mission in 1991, plants, animals and eight men and women were sent to live in the dome to be self-sufficient. Even though food was provided by crops with potato and banana plantations, the bionauts soon realized that the oxygen level was decreasing by 0.5% per month without being able to regain any stability. The level had become so low, 14.2% instead of 21%, due to low outside light preventing sufficient photosynthesis and microbes introduced into the agricultural sections, that some humans became ill. Oxygen had to be imported from outside the greenhouse, which contributed to the loss of credibility of the experiment. “After thirteen months we were starving, suffocating and thought we were all going crazy“, reports one of the bionauts, Jayne Poynte. The other reason leading to this loss of legitimacy is less scientific. The mission has been categorised as a cult acting under the guise of science in an “almost totalitarian, hippy tachism atmosphere” – Harvard researcher Wade Davies. Indeed, it seems that Allen has too much power over the participants in the experiment, and his attitude is seen as a “sectarian aberration“.

The second mission in 1994, which was supposed to last ten months, was cut short by vandalism committed by two members of the crew in reaction to the billionaire’s decision to release Allen from his obligations. The creative company was dissolved the same year.


Biosphere II then welcomed students and tourists and was finally sold to a property management company. However, the University of Arizona announced in 2007 that it would lease the facility to conduct experiments. This prototype is now used for environmental research and to anticipate the response of ecosystems to climate change. It allows environmental responses to be explored on land in a controlled and recreated system. The University of Arizona is also using it to understand the feedbacks between climate change, the carbon cycle and the water cycle, as well as the responses of habitats to these changes. More, some researchers are conducting studies exploring the complex effects of atmospheric CO2 variations on the functioning of ocean ecosystems.

The Canadian Space Program

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let us have a look at the Canadian space program.

October 1957, Sputnik 1 becomes the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit. We are in the middle of the Cold War, the tactical needs increase. Canada saw the opportunity to join the American astronautics research community through bilateral agreements. The result is a space race in which Canada has contributed to almost every mission in History.

Despite the successes associated with the creation of the Alouette 1 satellite and the Black Brant sounding rocket (whose launch almost resulted in a nuclear fire), the Canadian government does not wish to create a national space agency to coordinate its activities. In 1962, after the announcement by the American President J.F. Kennedy on the creation of a lunar space mission, the country made the feet of the module and has made possible for the Americans to land on our satellite. The same year, it became the third country to own a satellite in Earth orbit.

The country then developed its relations with the other international space powers by becoming, for example, a Member State of the European Space Agency.

It then took part in the project to create the International Space Station (ISS) and successfully created a robotic arm capable of moving along the structure, Canadarm 2. At the same time, the country is building its own astronaut corps.

In 1989 Canada finally created a national space agency, the John H. Chapman Centre, considered to be the father of Canadian’s space law having worked all his life on the country’s first space projects and having militated for the creation of such an agency.

Canada has become a pioneer in satellite communications and Earth observation in response to the needs of a population scattered over thousands of kilometers, as well as the need to monitor the world’s longest coastline and second-largest territory.


Canada’s space program is dynamic, sustainable, collaborative and inspiring. The Financial Report for 2020–2021 and the report on national public consultations on future space efforts identify five objectives.

First, it is about ensuring the growth of the Canadian space sector. Space technologies are linked to the economy as a whole and are achieving favorable results in other markets, such as telecom imaging services for natural resources, funding for technology in the field of Artificial Intelligence and robotics applicable in the medical community, or conducting climate change related activities in the atmosphere.

This objective then joins the second one: to take advantage of space for the benefit of Canadians. Space-based data is essential to government to provide services to Canadians such as weather forecasts, to ensure citizens’ safety and security or to provide an internet connection to rural and remote areas.

The third objective is based on innovation and exploration of space. Priority is given to the lunar exploration accelerator program, which consists of investing 150 million over five years, 2.05 billion over 24 years in innovative technologies. This then allows for the manufacture of Canadarm 3, the new robotic arm that descends directly from those that equipped the space shuttles and the ISS. The Canadian Space Agency will work hand in hand with private companies, including Ontario-based Canadensys Aerospace Corporation, to launch a low-power 360° camera to capture panoramic images of the Moon’s surface.

As well as Quebec company NGC Aerospace Ltd for the development of a positioning system similar to the GPS technology used on Earth to guide lunar vehicles and ensure their safety. Innovation and exploration of space is also based on the exploitation of the Radarsat Constellation mission, which provides near-realtime earth observation data, making it possible for example, to monitor maritime surveillance, ecosystems and potential natural disasters. The participation in other projects such as the International Space Station is also part of this third pillar of Canada’s space program.

Then, it is a question of strengthening long-term partnerships. The conquest of space is built around its utility for mankind. Therefore space missions are often cooperative initiatives. The International Space Station proves that despite the geopolitical tensions on Earth, space is a unique field that has encouraged close collaboration between countries around the world. Indeed, Ram Jakhu, professor at the McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law, said that the ISS is the best example of international cooperation ever. The knowledge shared through international cooperation is helping to manage global challenges such as climate change or understanding and combating the spread of viruses such as Covid-19.

Finally, the last pillar of the Canadian space program is to inspire the next generation. The Canadian flag that is most photographed in space and must continue to inspire the younger generation. Some Canadian’s astronauts have made their mark on the world through their communications, such as Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie on the ISS. They are helping to keep the younger interest. In addition, the implementation of programs aimed at young people, such as the Junior Astronaut Campaign and the CubeSats initiative, help to spark their curiosity.