The differences between COPUOS, UNOOSA and COSPAR

COSPAR, COPUOS & UNOOSA: what are the differences? The United Nations has been involved in space activities since the very beginning of the space age. Since the first man-made satellite orbited Earth in 1957, the United Nations has committed to using space for peaceful purposes. This launch, as part of the International Geophysical Year, marked the start of the space age, the first use of satellite technology for the advancement of science, and the beginning of human efforts to secure the peaceful uses of outer space.

This was followed in the 1960s by a rapid expansion of space exploration, starting in April 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth, and culminated in the “giant leap for mankind” by Neil Armstrong, in July 1969.

In 1958, shortly after the launch of the first artificial satellite, the General Assembly, in resolution 1348 (XIII), established an 18-member Special Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), to review the activities and resources of the United Nations, the specialized agencies and other international bodies relating to the peaceful uses of outer space, organizational arrangements to facilitate international cooperation in this field in the context of the United Nations, and the legal problems which could arise in the programs of exploration of outer space.

In 1959, the General Assembly established COPUOS as a permanent body, which at the time had twenty-four members, and reaffirmed its mandate in resolution 1472. Since then, COPUOS has served as a focal point for international cooperation in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, maintaining close contact with governmental and non-governmental organizations concerned with space activities, providing for the exchange of information relating to space activities, and assisting in the study of measures to promote international cooperation in these activities.

The work of COPUOS was assisted by the two sub-committees, the scientific and technical sub-committee and the legal sub-committee. The complex questions which have arisen in parallel with the development of space technology are the main concern of the two COPUOS sub-committees, which met for the first time in Geneva in 1962, then regularly each year.

The members of COPUOS are States and since 1959 the number of members of this organization has been growing, making COPUOS one of the largest committees of the United Nations. In addition to States, a number of international organizations, including intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, have observer status with COPUOS and its subcommittees. COPUOS monitors the implementation of five treaties and agreements.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) provides secretariat services to COPUOS and its two sub-committees and was initially established as a small group of experts within the United Nations Secretariat to serve the Special Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, established by the General Assembly in resolution 1348 (XIII) of December 1958.

The Office is headed by a Director and comprises two sections: the Space Applications Section, which organizes and implements the United Nations Space Applications Program, and the Committee, Policy and Legal Affairs Section, which provides secretariat services to the Committee, its two sub-committees and its working groups. The Political and Legal Affairs Committee also prepares and distributes reports and publications on international space activities and on international space law; Simonetta Di Pippo has been Director of the Office since March 2014.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is also the office responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. UNOOSA provides the secretariat for the only General Assembly committee dealing exclusively with international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space: the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

UNOOSA is also responsible for discharging the responsibilities of the Secretary-General under international space law and for maintaining the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space.

Within the framework of the United Nations Space Applications Program, UNOOSA organizes international workshops, training courses and projects on subjects such as remote sensing, satellite navigation, satellite meteorology, distance education and basic space sciences for the benefit of developing countries. It also operates a 24-hour hotline as the United Nations focal point for requests for satellite imagery during disasters and manages the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER). UNOOSA is the current secretariat of the International Committee for Global Navigation Satellite Systems (ICG).

The High Commission is part of and establishes partnerships with governmental, intergovernmental, non-governmental and private sector institutions to achieve its objectives. This collaboration enables the implementation of a diversified program enriched by knowledge and skills which are not always readily available within the Office and offers a new avenue for strengthening international cooperation. Engagement with other United Nations entities on the use of space technologies is through UN-Space.

Finally, there is COSPAR, the Space Research Committee which was created by the International Council for Science in 1958 as an interdisciplinary scientific body. COSPAR deals with all kinds of scientific investigations carried out with space vehicles and rockets.

COSPAR members are made up of national academies of science or equivalent international scientific unions. The Council, COSPAR’s supreme body, is made up of the President, representatives of national scientific institutions, the chairmen of COSPAR’s scientific commissions and the Chairman of COSPAR’s finance committee. The COSPAR Bureau manages the meetings of the Council.

Two main types of scientific bodies are active within COSPAR: scientific commissions (SC) and panels. The rules governing these organizations are set out in the Committee on Space Research statutes. In certain cases, the Bureau or the scientific commissions have created sub-commissions or working groups to deal with specific subjects of scientific interest to the partners. COSPAR also publishes scientific documents on critical issues to encourage decision-makers in the fields concerned to develop collaborative programs based on the best available scientific data.

To conclude, the international community has therefore acquired a set of organizations in order to better manage new technologies and growing space operations.

This article was written by Sonia Ben Cheikh (Paris-Saclay).