Op-ed | Space debris is more than a nuisance; it’s a borderline violation of international agreement


This commentary originally appeared in the June 5, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Since October 1957, with the Soviet success of Sputnik 1, the world’s spacefaring nations have exponentially increased the injection of artificial materials into space. This includes everything from healthy satellites to spent rocket stages, dead spacecraft and scads of smaller space debris resulting from routine operations and collisions both accidental and intentional.

Of the hundreds of thousands of man-made objects orbiting Earth, roughly 1,000 are functioning satellites.  The rest amount to scattered junk and are largely orbiting in the most congested and highly utilized orbits. Unlike Sputnik, which reentered the Earth’s atmosphere by January 1958 destroying all traces, most artificial space junk now orbiting will remain in space for hundreds if not thousands of years. Meanwhile, each of those hundreds of thousands of pieces travel in excess of 4 miles per second. At such velocities, even a tiny fleck of paint can damage a spacecraft. Because of the amount of debris and the danger posed, our orbits are approaching a saturation point that threatens the ability to operate in certain orbits.

Despite all the discussion about orbital debris, there hasn’t been much analysis of whether established rules and agreements are being violated by spacefaring countries that create the debris. This isn’t surprising since it is primarily the spacefaring countries that set these boundaries in the first place. Still, spacefaring countries that create debris and make no effort to remove it are, at best, negligent in their obligations, and at worst, in violation of their own commitments.

Treaty obligations

The international rules pointing to prohibitions on debris creation lie in a limited number of international agreements, most notably is the 1967  Outer Space Treaty. Article VI of the treaty imposes several obligations on states, including,  responsibility for national activities, ensuring that activities are conducted in conformity with the treaty, authorizing and continually supervising the activities, and sharing international responsibility for activities in which the state is a participant. Article VIII  provides that a state “shall retain jurisdiction” and control over its objects. In sum, a state that has launched an object into space will always own and be responsible for that object. In addition, the Outer Space Treaty points to additional principled obligations against the creation of space debris.  Article I directs that exploration of space shall be free for exploration and use by all states — a prospect that would be prohibited by the creation fo space debris. Article IX requires that “States party to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.”  While scholars have pointed to the fact that this article was focused on addressing the contamination of celestial bodies, another interpretation posits that the article is speaking about celestial bodies and space as a whole.

The second relevant treaty pertinent to ownership and responsibility for space objects is the 1976 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. The Registration Convention says that a country that launches an object has the obligation to register it. Because of registration, the launching country also incurs additional responsibilities, such as identified in Article 2, which provides that the state that ultimately registers the object will retain jurisdiction and control over the object and any associated personnel, in the case of human spaceflight missions.

Collectively, these treaties make clear that the creation of space debris is in opposition to the expectations of the international community and present a very clear danger. But even more so, it makes clear that the creation of debris is neither in accordance with the letter or the spirit of the agreements. While some countries may argue that it is not explicitly against the law, it most assuredly does not accord with the intent of the agreements. Meanwhile, ngoing efforts to achieve international consensus on the prevention of space debris, most evident in the proposals of the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, have been worthy endeavors but practically ineffective.  These are, in the end, recommendations that have no binding effect on spacefaring countries unless incorporated into their own domestic law or as-of-yet-unestablished international law.

In addition, there are efforts underway aimed at actively removing space debris from orbit. These efforts, while noble. are largely nascent. Meanwhile, the congestion in low Earth orbit will continue to grow, particularly with the proliferation of cubesats and other  small satellites.  Telecommunications startup OneWeb, for example, currently plans to add 1,972 satellites to the previous plan for 648 small satellites to provide communications connectivity to all areas of the world. This influx will make an already congested environment even more precarious. At the same time, stabilizing the environment demands that the flow of debris must be stemmed. In fact, Satomi Kawamoto of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency recently stated that just to stabilize LEO alone, at least 100 objects must be removed from orbit at a rate of at least five per year starting immediately. The technology still lags behind the need.

Ultimately, until the international community, particularly spacefaring countries, establish clear rules and hold spacefaring countries responsible for the creation of debris itself, the problem will continue. Even if methods of cleaning up the larger pieces become effective in the future, other problems, such as consensual removal of space debris, will continue to plague future efforts. States must be more forceful in their pressure on spacefaring countries to prevent and mitigate the creation of space debris, or future spacefaring efforts will be threatened  for all.

Marc G. Carns is an attorney and freelance writer on space and space-related issues with a focus on space debris.