Space debris

Lori Frater | 9 years ago

Human activities produce waste.There is a catalogue of waste legislation in the UK, most of it deriving from the European Union (EU), from the Waste Framework Directive to the Batteries Directive and many, many more in between.

However, no matter where we venture we leave a wake of rubbish. As a result of the use and exploration of space, the Earth’s orbit is being littered with space waste or space debris, this is humanity’s mark on the space beyond Earth. The European Space Agency estimates that there are:

  • 29,000 pieces of debris for sizes larger than 10 cm;
  • 670,000 pieces of debris for sizes larger than 1 cm; and
  • More than 170 million pieces of debris for sizes larger than 1 mm

Earth’s orbit is littered with decommissioned satellites but also with debris from tools, rocket boosters, debris from the testing of anti-satellite weapons and unmanned spacecraft.  Space debris is not biodegradable and it will stay in orbit for decades, or even centuries, before it eventually falls to earth and burns up.

The United Nations Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met in 2013 and held that that there was a risk of a “sudden, possibly, irreversible deteriorating of the orbital environment” owing to a number of factors, not least, space debris, as well as the use of that domain for military purposes.

Space debris is recognised as a major risk to space missions for example an object of just 1cm in size can have the same energy force as that of an exploding hand-grenade if it collides with a satellite.  Space debris falling to Earth is most likely to be burnt up in the atmosphere but some large pieces have made it back to Earth.  It has been estimated that manmade space debris has been dropping out of orbit at an average rate of about one object per day for the past 50 years. (Nicholas Johnson “Space debris issues” on The Space Show 0:06:50)

Similar concepts developed for handling waste on Earth are also utilised in the development of space equipment in an attempt to reduce the quantity of future space debris. For example an accepted means of dealing with waste reduction in the construction industry is ‘design for deconstruction’. This enables buildings to be efficiently dismantled at end of life. Salvaged materials can be re-used, recycled or re-manufactured – recovering some of their inherent value. In contrast ‘design for demise’ is an engineering process established for the intentional design, assembly, integration and testing of spacecraft so that a spacecraft will break-up once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere to such an extent so that it will not cause a threat to people or property on Earth.

Another common term is ‘end-of-life’ for example legislation dealing with ‘end-of-life vehicles’, which governs how vehicles can be taken to these specialised facilities for dismantling and recycling. In terms of space debris, there is end-of-life passivation, which aims to avert the risk of spacecraft break-up which could result in debris scattering and involves the venting of remaining propellant and pressurant from the tanks at the end of missions and the discharge of batteries.

However, whilst our common run of the mill terrestrial waste is controlled by a substantial body of law, space debris is not. It has been the subject of significant scientific and technical analysis for many years but has not achieved the legal recognition it deserves and so has not lead to the drafting of an adequate international framework to deal with the complex legal issues it raises. These legal issues include for example the creation of an international level playing field, which avoid the creation of uncompetitive disadvantages and unbalanced costs to industry in particular countries. Fundamentally, countries often wrangle over how to pay for any potential clean-up and under current space law, for instance, the owners of a satellite have to give permission before anyone else can go near it.

So why should it be an important environmental law concern? Outer space is classed as a “global commons” and closely linked to other perceived global commons, such as Earth’s atmosphere and ocean, and the Internet.

Space debris represents a ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem:

a)Earth’s orbit is a precious commodity – the Earth’s orbit is valuable and provides a location for satellites, which are used for everything from communications to television to Earth monitoring and military surveillance.

b)Earth’s orbit is subject to overuse – there are hundreds of thousands of man-made objects located in space. NASA currently tracks more than 21,000 man-made objects in orbit larger than 10 centimeters

c)Users do not pay the full price for the mess created by the debris; and

d)No one country has the incentive to clean up the problem by itself.

Earth’s orbit as a whole is traditionally considered to be non-excludable and non-rivalrous, thus making it a public good. Non-excludability arises from the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space of 1967 (Outer Space Treaty), which states that outer space is free for exploration and access by all countries and is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. However whilst outer space as a whole is non-rivalrous,, the majority of space debris is located in two areas: a) the low Earth orbit (leo) region below 2,000 kilometers in altitude, and b) the geostationary Earth orbit (geo) region, approximately 36,000 kilometers above the equator.  This makes it more of a common-pool resource than a global common, for example something akin to fisheries as a common-pool resource in the global common of the oceans.

Generally we use a Pigouvian tax or user fee to deal with ‘tragedy of the commons’ and it has been suggested by some academic economists that a user fee is placed on orbital launches to help pay for clean-up. Market-based mechanisms are now common place in environmental legislation particularly in relation to climate change for example the European Emissions Trading Scheme. The aim is to ensure that produces internalise the external. However, whilst on Earth this market based approach is in the main applied to private industry, in space this may have less effect due to the lack of private actors who would be responsive to market incentives.

What would any international treaty on space debris need to address?  Some possible considerations could include:

a) Generation of debris – this could include a definition of orbital or space debris. To date legal experts disagree whether the legal scope of orbital debris includes all technical classes.

b) Removal from orbit and consequently a question of jurisdiction and control over space debris this raises the question of who – Who has jurisdiction and control over space debris? If remedial action is to be included in any regulatory scheme, consideration needs to be given to the issue of who is authorized to remove orbital debris. Another State, or the private entity of another State, may not touch, interfere with or remove a space object without the launching State’s consent;

c) Detection and identification of space debris entails a method of identifying the State responsible for the debris. Identification of space objects is addressed in the Registration Convention;

d) International responsibility for space debris – the Outer Space Treaty does require that the study and exploration of outer space shall be conducted, “so as to avoid their harmful contamination,” and that States Parties, “shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.” However, there is no definition of what constitutes “harmful contamination’” or what are “appropriate measures” (Article IX Outer Space Treaty). Space debris is not normally classed as “harmful contamination”; as this normally refers to biological or radioactive contamination; and

e)Possible remedies for damage caused by debris.

The Outer Space Treaty provisions are too generic to deal with the complex problems of space debris. Despite efforts over decades to define the concept of ‘space debris’, no internationally agreed definition exists. The closest definition (by the International Academy of Astronautics) is any man-made object that is either:

a)Earth-orbiting and is non-functional with no reasonable expectation of assuming or resuming its intended function; or

b)re-entering the Earth atmosphere .

This is however only one of many definitions, none of which appears in any legislation.

A comparison is of course with the marine environment. In maritime law, abandonment arises where no personnel remain on board a vessel and there is no intent to return and reactivate it. At this point the vessel becomes a derelict subject to salvage. However, in relation to space debris, there may be further complications for example whether the hazard posed by space debris is sufficient justification for its removal without the consent of the State of registration.

Space debris can be classed as a pollutant and whilst on Earth there must be a clear line of responsibility for pollution and for its remediation, this is not the case for polluting space debris.

One of the major environmental problems is of course that current use of space is not sustainable. Space debris represents the use of Earth’s natural resources, once abandoned in space; these resources are no longer available to us. The waste hierarchy as provided in the Waste Framework Directive requires us to reduce, reuse or recycle waste. Once left in space, these materials are no longer able to be reused or recycled, which means a reduction of those materials on Earth and therefore potentially reducing the opportunity for future generations to have access to these materials.

Space debris offers a number of intergenerational equity issues. Currently, there are nearly 1,000 active satellites in orbit providing a wide range of social and private benefits including enhanced national and international security, more efficient use and management of natural resources, improved disaster warning and response, and reliable global communications and navigation. However, the more debris that is generated in space, the increased probability of clashes and therefore damage to valuable services.

With space debris increasing, there is the potential that the Earth’s orbit as a natural resource comes under so much stress that it restricts future generations from exploring outer space or being able to use the orbit because it is too overcrowded.

To preserve the outer space environment for future generation, in 2008, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 62/217, endorsing the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The voluntary guidelines outline space debris mitigation measures for the planning, design, manufacture and operational phases of spacecraft and launch vehicles. The guidelines call for limiting the long-term presence of spacecraft in low-Earth orbit after the end of their mission. The guidelines call for the removal of such spacecraft from orbit or for their disposal in other orbits that avoid their long-term presence in the LEO region, where the majority of satellites are placed and where they are in greatest danger of collision.

This has been followed in 2014 with the UN confirming that space activities play a vital role in supporting sustainable development on Earth and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and in contributing to the post-2015 development agenda process.  A working group had been established in 2010 to develop guidelines on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities and draft guidelines were proposed in November 2013.

This set of guidelines includes recommendations on sustainable space utilization supporting sustainable development on Earth; space debris, space operations and tools to support collaborative space situational awareness; space weather; and regulatory regimes and guidance for actors in the space arena. In particular guidelines 9 through 15 of the 33 draft guidelines outline the development of regulatory frameworks and practices supporting the long-term sustainability of space activities, both for national governments considering national regulation, and for international intergovernmental organizations (for example the European Space Agency) that authorize or otherwise conduct space activities.

These guidelines are expected to be finalised in 2016.

About the author

Lori Frater

Lori is a lawyer, consultant and researcher with experience of advising international and national institutions, governments and companies on all aspects of national and international environmental law, including climate change and sustainability development. She has experience of policy development and legislative drafting. At present she specialises in legislative reform in particular on the ecosystem approach, nature based solutions to climate change as well as ecosystem services and natural resource management.