Orbital Police? How Open Source Intelligence Can Aid Diplomacy and Space Norms in Low Earth Orbit and Beyond

December 16, 2022 - 11:00 am to 12:15 pm
Dr. Jonathan McDowell
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Since the onset of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the wide array of readily available data sets from commercial space platforms have allowed the world to understand the ongoing dynamics of both the military conflict and related civil and humanitarian issues in an unprecedented level of detail. This includes satellite imagery and data sets that have been able to help diplomats better understand issues from characterizing potential war crimes committed by the Russian military, to the status of agreements by the Kremlin to allow Ukraine to export vital grain supplies to help avert global food crises. Additionally, with the official start of Winter just days away, and below-freezing temperatures on tap for Kyiv in the coming weeks, dramatic NASA satellite imagery released in late November showed a nationwide blackout from Lviv to Kharkiv, Kyiv to Kherson owing to continued Russian kinetic attacks on Ukrainian civil energy infrastructure.

What all of these examples have in common, is that unlike previous large-scale conflicts which relied on slowly-declassified satellite data released from governments around the world, the data now reaching both the expert community and the general public is captured and rapidly released by commercial entities operating powerful, multispectral imagers in low-Earth orbit. In practice, this has meant a renaissance for the open-source intelligence community, which can aid not only public understanding of the events unfolding on the ground, but as powerful tools for diplomats and aid workers attempting to support humanitarian efforts.

With these trends in mind, please join the Duke University Space Diplomacy Lab team for a timely discussion with Dr. Jonathan McDowell, Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) on the role that both government-sponsored science satellites and commercial orbital imaging platforms now play in supporting vital open-source intelligence work covering a wide array of issues, from geopolitical trends and humanitarian assistance delivery on the ground, to managing contingencies in space, like orbital traffic management and space debris tracking. We will discuss the need to engage in anticipatory diplomatic outreach, aided by space-based open-source intelligence data products, to help set norms and eventually, international treaties and regulations to build out the current space regulatory framework. Ultimately, such engagement will be crucial to help with mitigation and deconfliction to ensure the future safe and sustainable use of outer space. The discussion will take place in dialogue with members of the Duke University Space Diplomacy lab team, moderated by lab co-founders Professor Giovanni Zanalda and Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt.

Dr. Jonathan McDowell studies black holes, quasars and X-ray sources in galaxies, as well as supporting development of data analysis software for the X-ray astronomy community. Dr. McDowell has a B.A in Mathematics (1981) and a Ph.D in Astrophysics (1987) from the University of Cambridge, England. After postdocs at Jodrell Bank, CfA and NASA-MSFC, he came back to Harvard-CfA to work on the Einstein archive and then joined team leading efforts for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, part of NASA’s Great Observatories satellite program. He currently leads the group which plans and tests the science analysis software for the Chandra space telescope. Scientific publications include studies of cosmology, black holes, merging galaxies, quasars, and asteroids. He is also the editor of Jonathan’s Space Report, a free internet newsletter founded in 1989 which provides technical details of satellite launches, and is a well-respected leading commentator for major media outlets on spacecraft activity in low-earth orbit and beyond. You can follow Dr. McDowell on Twitter at @Planet4589.


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  • Duke University Center for International and Global Studies
  • Rethinking Diplomacy

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  • Speaker Series