Space program research results – are they shared?

Almost all the data captured by the James Webb Space telescope will be available for the whole of the scientific community as well as the general public.
Credit: NASA
Almost all the data captured by the James Webb Space telescope will be available for the whole of the scientific community as well as the general public.
Space program research results – are they shared?

Do the countries involved in space programs share the results of their work and their research among themselves? And when it comes to technological competition, does information get shared?

Space, a competitive environment?

At first glance, you might think that space is a highly competitive environment. The best example of this is the demanding selection of astronauts. Their expertise must span two or three areas, and their superhuman training runs for a number of years. If nation states train specialists of this sort, they expect a return, and research results must be closely protected.

Fortunately, science isn’t as competitive. It’s just one part of space programs. The James Webb Space Telescope is a good example of collaboration.

Almost all the data captured by that telescope will be available, once acquired, for the whole of the scientific community as well as the general public. Only a small part of this data will be protected for a few months. This is what we call guaranteed time. That period makes it possible for scientific teams who’ve invested time and money in the construction of the telescope to have privileged access to the data.

What is included in a space program?

Space programs are truly wide. They include astronomic, military and telecommunications programs, not to mention all the observations programs from Earth: observation of climate, agriculture, water, energy and weather.

Scientific cooperation and technological competition

A distinction has to be made between science and technology.

Scientific cooperation is expressed in the ability of organizations to work together on the definition of scientific programs.. The James Webb Space Telescope is the result of a collaboration among three space agencies. It’s an example of scientific cooperation starting in 1998 that saw its completion when it was launched and that will continue to run for several years, with the sharing of data.

Nevertheless, raw scientific data resulting from observations cannot be directly used. They must be prepared: cleaned and calibrated. That work is generally carried out by teams made up essentially of postdoctoral researchers taking part in the space programs. For scientific knowledge to advance, this open sharing is necessary. But it can still be, in part, disadvantageous. These young scientists spend a lot of time preparing this data with no competitive advantage.

If the production of scientific data is globally very open in the space field, the development of the technologies that have made collecting them possible is a tightly closed area. We talk about technological competition.

Exchanges take place among partners accompanied by confidentiality clauses and intellectual-property-definition clauses before, during and after the projects. These are true contracts that, often, take an incredible amount of time to sign, since they involve nations, universities, businesses and militaries.

Does military secrecy have an impact in the space-science field?

States are reluctant to share technologies that could, in time, endanger their national security. Infrared astronomy is a good example.

Studying infrared (IR) wavelengths is useful in astronomy in the search for exoplanets or the origin of galaxies. It’s also useful in the military arena, for the observation of opposing powers or the design of sophisticated weaponry.

Thus, IR sensors developed in the context of military activities may be used in astronomy, but in a highly controlled environment. There are two goods-control programs:

  • The Controlled Goods Program in Canada (Integrated Real-Time Industrial Security – IRIS);
  • The ITAR program in the United States (International Traffic in Arms Regulations).

The commercialization of space

In the area of the commercialization of space, competition, dominated by financial interests, prevents the sharing of information. Only two or three private entities participate in the mad rush to conquer space. The only regulation that still exists today is the Space Treaty of 1967. At the time, this treaty concerned only the militarization of space.

This text is an adaptation of a column broadcast on November 2, 2021, on the program Moteur de recherche, over ICI Radio-Canada Première.

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