July 14, 2009

Small UN Branch Handles “˜Earthly’ Space Affairs

An often-overshadowed branch of the United Nations known as the Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) mostly has earthly concerns on its agenda, AFP reported.

The tiny UN office and its 27 employees sit almost forgotten in the vast hallways of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna, where it mostly coordinates help for poor countries to develop crops and manage natural disasters.

"If we do make contact with aliens, who do you think should be representing mankind?" jokes UNOOSA director Mazlan Othman.

"It would be the secretary general of the United Nations... that's why we're here," he said.

The Office for Outer Space Affairs has its roots in the 1957 establishment of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which was developed when Russia launch the first satellite, Sputnik, that same year.

In order to prevent an aggressive space race, five major treaties and agreements were drawn up in the following decades, regulating members' activities in space and advocating equal rights and access for all states.

However, today the UN office is keen to emphasize the peaceful aspect of its work, setting up programs to help poor countries gain access to space technology for developmental and aid purposes.

Othman said such programs are what they're most excited about at the UN because that is part of the development agenda of the United Nations.

"It is sometimes such a simple way of helping a developing country just to tell them where their water resources are, and it never strikes that member state that they can use satellite data for instance," he explained.

Modern space technology and satellite imagery can facilitate communications, disaster mitigation, natural resource management, and the study of climate change and tele-epidemiology -- the study of how diseases spread.

Othman believes all states should have access to it, which is why UNOOSA set up a Space Applications Program to train and advise developing countries, and SPIDER (Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response) to put them in contact with aid agencies, NGOs and satellite imagery providers.

Among the 69 member states involved in the committee, about two-thirds of them are without a space program.

Othman explained that just because a country cannot have access to space does not mean they have no say in matters relating to space.

However, UNOOSA would also be involved in coordinating responses to an asteroid potentially crashing into Earth.

Jamshid Gaziyev from UNOOSA's Committee Services and Research Section said no single country currently has the capability to deflect or destroy a "near-earth object" large enough to do any damage.

That means forward planning is essential and they must have a strategy in place and avoid disputes between member states should a crisis situation arise. An example would be a dispute over whether to use nuclear weapons and where to divert the asteroid so that it makes the least damage when it makes impact.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979 also forbid "the establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications... and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies," while describing astronauts as "envoys of mankind in outer space."

The UN committee may even one day be responsible for regulating space burials or space tourism.

Gaziyev said that space is more present in everyday life than we think; therefore the "people in outer space" at UNOOSA will carry on with business as usual.


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