top of page
  • Faith Obafemi

Space Debris is the Responsibility of All Space Actors

Once upon a time, outer space probably symbolized serenity and quietness. Not too long, humans began to think: “twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are”. This birthed space exploration. Many people still believe that space is a quiet environment, however, space is not a sterile environment; it harbours (dangerous) objects hurtling through it at speeds greater than 15,000 miles per hour. These hazardous pieces of debris have caused damage to satellites and other space objects, causing concern for the international community.


Space debris has adverse effects and could even be a direct threat to life on earth. For example, a satellite lost in space would cause economic and logistical disruptions for businesses that rely on satellite technology for their operations. Therefore, while mankind has developed advanced technology to outrun the laws of gravity and explore other parts of the universe, we must also assume responsibility for the harsh environment those explorations have created.


The one-sentence summary of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) is that space belongs to humankind. Consequently, I argue in this article that space debris should be the responsibility of not just the private actors, but also all space actors. I start off with a definition of space debris and move on to a brief analysis of the current liability and legal framework for space debris. The next section identifies challenges with the current framework, followed by some recommendations and a conclusion.


What is Space Debris?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines space debris as “all man-made objects in orbit about the Earth which no longer serve a useful purpose.” I define space debris as the mess that humans leave behind while exploring space. They include upper stages of launch vehicles, dead satellites, paint flecks from rockets, and fragments resulting from the collision of existing space objects and debris.


Some objects with lower orbits of a few hundred kilometres have a high rate of return. They often re-enter the atmosphere after a few years and burn up, preventing them from reaching Earth’s ground. However, trash or abandoned spacecraft at greater altitudes of 36,000 kilometres, where communications and weather satellites are frequently deployed (geostationary orbits), can continue to circle the Earth for hundreds or even thousands of years.


Space debris is a serious threat to exploratory endeavours and to other satellites in orbit. To avoid being hit and possibly getting damaged or destroyed by approaching space debris, space objects must manoeuvre out of that path. Every year, all satellites, and the International Space Station (ISS) conduct hundreds of collision avoidance manoeuvres.


The Fengyun-1C weather satellite was destroyed by the Chinese military on January 11, 2007, during a test of an anti-satellite system, resulting in the worst space debris incident, which produced more than 3,000 fragments of space debris. On January 22, 2013, the scientists on the Russian BLITS (Ball Lens in the Space) laser-ranging satellite were forced to abort the mission because of a collision with a piece of Fengyun-1C debris.


In 1978, NASA Scientist, Donald Kessler proposed that If there was too much space debris in orbit, it might set off a domino effect where more and more objects collide, creating new debris along the way until Earth's orbit was rendered useless. This is referred to as the Kessler Syndrome. It is important to take precautions to ensure such a situation never happens.


Current Liability Framework for Space Debris

Some domains like space and the high seas are deemed to be the common heritage of humankind. Consequently, space naturally transcends any single jurisdiction. This singular fact has made space governance through laws a herculean task. So far, while there are five major complementary international laws focusing on space, none of them directly addresses space debris.


Challenges With Current Liability Framework And Recommendations

Space is not exclusive to one party, it can be likened to a public good. The control of debris buildup is the responsibility of all spacefarers. In order to mitigate the buildup of junk in orbit, all space-faring companies are required by the United Nations to remove their satellites from orbit within 25 years of the completion of their mission. However, because satellites can malfunction, it is difficult to enforce this.


Another creative measure for addressing this issue includes bringing down and burning satellites that have exceeded their lifespan so they can be removed from space. This can be accomplished by harpooning a satellite, entangling it in a massive net, grabbing it with magnets, or even shooting lasers at the satellite to heat it up and increase air drag, causing it to fall out of orbit.


These techniques, though, are only practical for sizable satellites orbiting the Earth. There are no techniques to clean up smaller pieces of trash, like paint and metal fragments. They have to return to the earth's atmosphere organically.


Article VIII of the OST is the largest legal barrier to space debris removal efforts:


“A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return".


Chinese organizations for instance, whether private as well as the government, cannot remove American or Russian debris without authorization from their respective governments' which would probably be difficult to secure.


Since current rules do not address all types of debris, new policies will need to be implemented. The private sector is taking steps to address the debris problem by contracting with companies that remove junk from space. Private companies have also encouraged global citizens to join the effort to identify and responsibly collect space debris.


Conclusion

In this article, I have argued that full responsibility for the prevention and mitigation of space debris should be borne by not just the private sector, but all space actors. A communal approach to space resources should also mirror a communal approach to managing space debris. While private sector funding has seen a rise in space activities, consequently increasing the risk of space debris, they alone should not be held liable for space debris considering their efforts are beneficial to humankind. This communal principle is essentially reinforced in the OST.


Comments


bottom of page