Lack of Space Law Complicates Growing Debris Problem

Existing international treaties cover only narrow aspects of space and have been signed by fewer than half of the world’s countries. 

Satellite collisions give rise to space debris. (Image via European Space Agency)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — If you get into a car accident on your way home, laws exist to determine who is liable for the damage. But if your satellite hits another satellite in space, there are no clear rules. 

More than 10,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters (4 inches) wide are currently orbiting Earth. More than 2,000 are operational satellites and the rest is space junk: decommissioned satellites, rocket boosters, and other garbage.

And that’s just what we know about, according to Kai-Uwe Schrogl, chief strategy officer at the European Space Agency, who is known as the “godfather” of space debris. 

“It’s a bit of a misnomer,” he said in an interview. “I don’t make space debris myself.”

There is a treaty aimed specifically at covering liability in space: the 1972 Space Liability Convention. Ratified by 96 countries, the convention stipulates that nations are responsible for any object launched from their territory into space. But the treaty has a number of problems. 

“It doesn’t define what a space object is,” said Schrogl.

It’s not clear if the term “space object” would even include space debris. Moreover, despite its name, the treaty doesn’t clarify liability. If you are driving on a road and you come to a red light, the law says that you must stop. If you don’t and you hit another car, you are at fault. In space, there are no traffic lights. 

Schrogl, who is also president of the International Institute of Space Law, says there are millions of pieces of debris smaller than the 10-centimeter cutoff. We don’t know how many exactly because these pieces are too small to track. But,with debris moving at 28,000 kilometers (17,000 miles) per hour, even paint chips from old satellites can cause considerable damage. 

In total, there are five United Nations treaties that cover various aspects of space. The earliest, the Outer Space Treaty, which was ratified in 1967, has 104 signatories. It declared space free for all nations to explore and banned the use of nuclear weapons in space, a major security concern during the Cold War. 

Distribution of space debris around Earth. (Image via European Space Agency)

Prior to the signing of the Outer Space Treaty, each nation was considered to have sovereignty over the air above its borders. This concept was laid down in the Paris Convention of 1919, which aimed to regulate aerial travel, a new and rapidly developing industry. 

Subsequent treaties – such as a 1968 agreement on the rescue of astronauts and the 1975 Registration Convention, which requires that objects launched into space be registered with a U.N. body – cover narrow aspects of space travel and have been signed by fewer than half of the world’s countries. 

Collisions have occurred in space. Most of them are between defunct satellites, but one 1977 crash scattered radioactive debris across Canada. A malfunction onboard the nuclear-powered Soviet spy satellite Kosmos 954 pushed it back into the Earth’s atmosphere and Canada billed the Soviet Union more than 6 million Canadian dollars ($18 million today) for the damage. The two countries ultimately agreed on 3 million Canadian dollars ($9 million today). 

The problem is only getting worse, said Oliver Tian, a researcher in the legal framework of space debris at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. Nearly 9,000 satellites have been launched since the Soviet Union first sent Sputnik 1 to the Earth’s orbit in 1957. SpaceX alone has launched 60 satellites this year. 

Most of what goes into space doesn’t come back. Nations aren’t required to remove their garbage from space and to do so voluntarily would cost a tremendous amount of money. So more than half of those 9,000 satellites remain, some as operational but more as decommissioned junk. As they crash into each other, they create more tiny bits of debris whizzing around the Earth.

“Space could be inaccessible to humans,” said Tian.

This worst-case scenario is known as the Kessler Effect, when the quantity of space debris created from objects crashing into one another increases until it’s no longer possible to travel through it. 

The European Space Agency launched its Clean Space Initiative in 2013 and has commissioned the first debris removal mission, scheduled for 2025. Together with the Swiss tech startup Clear Space, the ESA plans to use robotic arms to capture part of a rocket and deorbit it to the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up on reentry. 

“This is an environmental problem,” said Schrogl. “What is happening on Earth is happening in space.”

Despite the growing problem, the ESA’s chief strategy officer is optimistic. Unlike other issues facing humanity – climate change, poverty, war – the ones surrounding space debris have clear and straightforward solutions. If, that is, countries are willing to get together and act.

“It is a solvable problem,” Schrogl said.

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