We as a world are polluting the space even before making it our home. While explorations and scientific developments are key to a more progressive world, we must also conduct such explorations responsibly. As we move towards many scientific and technological developments, there is also an incessant need to achieve these developments while ensuring sustainability.
Space debris has indeed become a matter of concern.More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Therefore, this article aims to analyse the need to tackle space debris. The article introduces the concept of what, where and how of space debris at a rudimentary level and as the title suggests deals with the need to tackle space debris at length. It further discusses about the various legislations and treaties passed by international organisations like the United Nations in depth and further also analyses the regional policies of various countries with a powerful space agency. Efforts of international organisations like ILA, IADC, IAA have also been discussed at length. Furthermore, the issue of space debris has been dealt with from a local perspective by outlining the efforts of the Central Government as well as ISRO and finally the author has remarked upon the future of space exploration while considering sustainability.
“It is a fixer-upper of a planet, but we could make it work”
– Elon Musk
Quoting Sam Kean, the density of space junk peaks around 620 miles up, in the middle of the so-called low Earth’s orbit. That’s bad because many weather scientists and reconnaissance Satellite circle in various low Earth’s orbits.
What is Space Debris and Where does it come from
Space debris is space junk created with scientific material that is orbiting Earth. Space debris consists of discarded launch vehicles or parts of a spacecraft that float around in space hundreds of miles above the Earth, risking collision with a satellite or a space station. It may happen due to an explosion in space, during the missile test conducted by States. The space debris can be large, like Rockets or microscopic parts of damaged rockets. According toBritannica, much of the debris orbits in lower Earth’s orbit within 2,000 km (1,200 miles) of Earth’s surface; however, some debris can be found in geostationary orbit 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above the Equator. In its report, the United States Space Surveillance Network estimated tracking that there are more than 15,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm across and about 200,000 pieces between 1 and 10 cm across and that there could be millions of parts smaller than 1 cm. In layman’s terms, it can be called untreated pollution of Space. TheEuropean Space Agency (ESA) estimates that some 900,000 objects over one centimeter in size have no use but orbiting the Earth, and the UN accord it as an endangered future emission.
Types of Space Debris
Space Debris is commonly in two typesNatural space debris and Artificial space debris. Many small pieces of comets, meteors, and asteroidal material gravitate in space. Comets are the nucleus of the dust that gets created and destroyed by itself in the Universe, whereas the meteors could be small natural interplanetary object that survives their passage through Earth’s atmosphere and land on the surface, they revolve in the sun’s orbit together they are formed to be the Natural Space debris. Artificial space debris are man-made created chunks that are non-functional usually revolves around the Earth’s orbit. Some are born naturally and sometimes find their way to destroy themselves. Asteroids and debris represent a significant hazard for both space and terrestrial assets, not to mention life on the planet.
Need to tackle Space Debris
Ithas become clear that the ever-increasing population of space debris could lead to catastrophic consequences in recent years. There is a syndrome where the density of objects in orbit is high enough that a collision could set off a cascade, which is more realistic now than when first proposed in 1978, this syndrome is called aKesseler syndrome.
Presently, radars and optical observation facilities are following the space debris that is orbiting around the Earth. Technology is rapidly developing; the team is already searching for the impression of the existence of life on other planets. The piling up of junk is not just limited to the land; it is continued in Space. The International Space Station revolves around the Earth at the height of 400 km. The orbital speed is approximately 90 minutes. The Hubble Telescope is above 550 km above the Earth’s surface at an orbital speed of about 90 minutes and many more.
Recently, theChinese rocket crashed into the Indian ocean called the Tianhe module due to uncontrolled orbit. Usually, the discarded Rocket stages renters the atmosphere after the lift-off. The uncontrolled de orbits are not unheard of; the precursor of NASA’s initial space station called Skylab first happened in 1979, though no human casualty. The rising number of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, especially humans aboard the International Space Station. This leads to destruction and disaster in space. It is junk monitored by none.
There is a need to focus on space debris as humanity affects space and its orbit. Several programs point out the control of space debris. There are multiple features of the on-orbital service program that have been started to assist the orbital debris remediation program. The states and the Institutions are programming ideas that make people aware of how they are manipulating space development with precaution. The Earth’s orbit has many non-functional satellites and manifestations. Even the smallest bolt revolving at high velocity can create damage like the destruction of the space station that gets attracted by the Earth’s gravitational pull and leads to disaster. It may also create a substantial economic loss to build a connection to build a new set of ideas for establishing the space station. As perNASA report, an average of one catalogue piece of debris falls every day on Earth although there is no trace of significant damage.
Initiatives around the Globe
Space debris is not a blanket fold and does not belong to any particular regime. Therefore, there are conventions with respect to outer space activities.The Liability Convention 1972,Moon Agreement 1979,Outer Space Treaty 1967,Rescue Agreement 1968, and Registration Convention 1975. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) 1967 is also referred to as the Constitution of space law.
- Article VI of OST, declares that:
States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space
- Article VII of OST, declares that:
State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty.
- Article IX of OST prescribes that the launching state should take ‘appropriate measures’ in case it believes that their space exploration will lead to ‘harmful contamination of outer space.
The space is getting crowded every day. Initially, the Countries were trying to establish their potential with regards to the act in space, but now, the techno giant world has felt the need to improve the situation of Space. Countries are taking responsibility to tackle Space debris through various methods, and the EOS laser system is one of them. Japan and Australia are preparing to tackle space debris with magnets called the ELSA system.
Initiatives of UNCOPUOS
Having established the need to tackle space debris, many national and international organizations have taken steps towards reducing space debris. The United Nations Office for Outer Space, in 1959, set up theUN Committee on the Peaceful Uses for Outer Space to regulate the safe use of space. Under this Committee five major conventions were passed, namely:
- Outer Space Treaty
- Rescue Agreement
- Liability Convention
- Registration Convention
- Moon Agreement
The ‘Magna Carta’ of space law is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It acted as the building block for formulating a Universal Space Law. Passed in 1967, this treaty emphasized the need for international cooperation of member states to ensure the peaceful exploration of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies. With advancements in science and technology, there was a constant need for the rule of law in this newfound area of human endeavour.
Moving on, the Rescue Agreement was enforced in 1968 after much deliberation for over half a decade. As the name suggests, this covenant primarily focused on the safe return of astronauts and other objects sent to space. This covenant was passed to impose a sense of responsibility upon countries towards their astronauts.
It was in 1972, that the United Nations finally decided to impose liability on member states for the damage caused by space objects in outer space. The Liability Convention acts as a crucial source of legislation for our analysis. The Liability Convention, which was built on Article 7 of the Outer Space Treaty, stated that a launching State is totally accountable to pay compensation for harm caused by its space objects on the Earth’s surface or to aircraft and for damage caused by its errors in space. The Convention also specified the processes for resolving damage claims. This legislation identified the damage done by space objects and provided a redressal. Such damage also involves space debris.
The Registration Convention of 1976 elaborated on the registration of space objects to their respective nations to outline the rights and liabilities of the states. Finally, The Moon Agreement of 1984 reaffirmed and expanded on many of the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty as they applied to the Moon and other celestial bodies, including the requirement that those bodies be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, that their environments not be disrupted, and that the United Nations be informed of the location and purpose of any station established on those bodies. Furthermore, the Agreement said that the Moon and its natural resources are humanity’s common inheritance, and that an international government should be formed to govern their exploitation when such exploitation becomes practical.
Initiatives of UNOOSA
In addition to these covenants, the UNOOSA has also devised certain principles concerning the safe use of outer space.
- The “Declaration of Legal Principles”: General Assembly resolution 1962 (XVIII) of 13 December 1963
Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space.
- The “Broadcasting Principles”: General Assembly resolution 37/92 of 10 December 1982
The Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting.
- The “Remote Sensing Principles”: General Assembly resolution 41/65 of 3 December 1986
The Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space.
- The “Nuclear Power Sources” Principles: General Assembly resolution 47/68 of 14 December 1992
The Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space.
- The “Benefits Declaration”: General Assembly resolution 51/122 of 13 December 1996
The Declaration on International Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for the Benefit and in the Interest of All States, Taking into Particular Account the Needs of Developing Countries.
Efforts by International Organisations
In addition to the United Nations, many other international organisations like the ILA, IADC among others, have also made some efforts to clean space debris and conduct responsible and safe exploration of space.
- International Law Association (ILA):
The International Law Association endorsed the International Instrument on the Protection of the Environment from Damage Caused by Space Debris after nearly a decade of research on space debris by the Space Law Committee. This 16-article agreement is the first time an international group has agreed on a legislative text on space debris. It includes a definition of space debris as well as the basic responsibility of states and international organisations to cooperate (inform, consult, and negotiate in good faith) in order to prevent damage to the space environment. Although this document is neither legislation nor policy, and it does not address technical ways to restrict orbital debris creation, it could be a first step in bringing the debris issue into the legal system.
- Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC):
The organisation is known for its bi-annual conference that hosts governmental space agencies worldwide such as NASA, ESA, and Russia Space Agency. While these conferences may not have aided in establishing a strict legal regime, the various issues of space debris are discussed in detail, which provides a framework for other organisations like the UN to address these issues through a legal regime. These conferences are held in high regard due to the accolades of the attendees. These above-mentioned space agencies are three of the most efficient and innovative space agencies in the world, and therefore this forum carries with it a great sense of influence.
- International Astronautical Academy (IAA):
The contributions of the IAA can be traced back to ’93, with its first position paper on space debris titled ‘Position Paper on Orbital Debris’ being issued. At a very early stage, this paper deliberated and elaborated upon the then present and future situation of orbital debris and suggested a few controls that could help regulate space-related activities and those that were prone to increasing the space debris.
Apart from these organisations, various governments like the Russian Government, USA, China, Europe, and India have formulated regional policies to regulate space-related activities by enacting space laws. A local perspective on this would be dealt in detail in the latter part of the article. However, to talk of this issue from a global perspective, we can first look at a superpower’s policies- the USA.
- United States of America
NASA has already taken the initiative of reducing space debris by issuing the ‘NASA Handbook for Limiting Orbital Debris’, the purpose of which is to predominantly construct a supplementary set of guidelines that would complement the NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 8715.6 and NASA Procedural Requirements for Limiting Orbital Debris and NASA-STD 8719.14.
However, suppose one has to deal with the governmental policies and frameworks. In that case, President Reagan’s current policy issued in 1988 states that “all space sectors will seek to minimize the creation of space debris…consistent with mission requirements and costeffectiveness.“
Secondly, the Russian Federation has a debris policy mentioned in Section I, Article 4, Paragraph 2 of its Space Law. It states that the following are prohibited in the Russian Federation to ensure strategic and ecological security: …space pollution that causes negative environmental changes, such as the deliberate destruction of space objects in space.
Since 1988, the European Space Agency has had strict requirements in place to prevent the production of new debris. The Council of the European Space Agency (ESA) passed a resolution in 1989 establishing the agency’s goals in the subject of space debris. The ESA’s policy is to minimise the creation of space debris to the greatest extent practicable and enhance information exchange and collaboration with other spaceoperators.
There is no doubt that the establishment of ISRO in 1969 was the biggest achievement concerning the development of space research. Research Organisation has developed multiple activities and initiated several programs to remove debris left in space missions. Economic Times stated the Minister of State of Earth Sciences Jitendra Singh told the Lower House thatISRO follows the guidelines laid down by the United Nations and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee for space debris.
On April 6th, India has resettled a mission that aims to develop a methodology to predict Space Debris. The project is a resident space object that gives the space situational awareness. The project would directly support keeping a check on the program related to Space Debris. This project also aims to diversify the academia and research based on Space-based technology. There are approximately 50 satellites of India functioning in Space, and India is preparing to launch its space station. Space Debris is causing a threat to the space asset. Indian Space research organisation recognises the importance of space debris by creating several space technology to improve the quality of the Earth. ISRO works on multiple aspects of Space Debris.
India has established its position in the Space research development program, it has established itself well in the International Space regime. During the time of post-independence, India had attracted indigenous technology in construction. It had taken part in all the operations about satellites. The background and charter of ISRO drew its attention in the year 1958 when India became a member of the Ad hoc Committee constituted by the General Assembly. The committee on peaceful uses of outer space and various sub-committee of International Space Law. India is a signatory to five International Treaties that cover International space treaties.
- The Outer Space Treaty- is one magnificent that governs the activities of states in exploring and controlling the use of Space Debris.
- Rescue Agreement 1968- the agreement deals with rescuing the astronauts, their safe return from outer space to the Earth.
- Registration Convention 1975- this deals with the registration of the object that exists in outer space.
India has observed that Space Law has become an important part of tackling space junk. Space law is like a possible use of technology to explore and control the problem of Space debris. Space is a common blanket for all the States. Like Sea, it does not belong to one State, community, or region. Every existing and recognised Country has the complete right to fight against space debris. It comes with a lot of geopolitical, economic, and social challenges. The committee on the peaceful use of outer space deals with the space governance having legal mechanism relating to the space debris. The removal of space debris is a long-term process, and it is very much required to consider so that the Countries may be able to establish sustainable space activities.
Need for Legal Regime
While it has been entrenched above that space debris needs to be tackled, it only deals with its technical stance. Legally, this rising global issue still fails to receive the recognition of legal regimes worldwide. This cavity could be due to difficulties in outlining a jurisdiction, lack of international level playing field, and issues relating to drafting and enacting, among many more.
Although the member nations of the UN are bound by the legislation mentioned above, international law is merely advisory and not mandatory to be followed. This calls for regional policy-making across the globe. This indicates a pressing need for space legislation.
According to the Indian Space Research Organisation, only government entities in India have jurisdiction over the space industry (ISRO). Some commercial industries only supply and produce a restricted number of components when outsourcing. ISRO recently received a pleasant surprise when it outsourced satellite manufacture for the first time to a private sector company in order to promote the ‘Make in India’ policy. ISRO and an Indian start-up agreed last year to launch a spacecraft that will attempt to land on the Moon. These are the first steps toward creating a commercial space sector ecosystem that will boost bilateral, multilateral, and transitional participation. Outsourcing would allow ISRO to devote more time to cutting-edge research rather than satellite and launch vehicle development. A clear and user-friendly structure would provide seamless functioning of numerous interfaces, avoid inter-interface conflict, and protect the operator and the government from liability in the event of injury.
In terms of launching prowess, India’s transformation from dependency to self-sufficiency may make it the world’s launch pad. Due to India’s cost-effective space programmes, several countries and global organisations have engaged into official agreements with India to support them in their various space efforts and launch satellites.
Domestic laws such as contract, transfer of property, stamp tax, registration, insurance, and, most importantly, intellectual property rights must be updated as a result of the advent of commercialisation to account for space-related challenges.
The United States has joined the rising worldwide concern about space debris. India is embroiled in an international row over debris from an Indian satellite that landed in a Japanese village on its way back to Earth. As a signatory to the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, India has an absolute obligation to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the Earth’s surface or to aircraft in flight. Determine the amount of damages owed since India lacks a national space law and policy. Furthermore, the regulation would assist in assessing and determining liability in the event of an unavoidable collision between space debris and objects floating in space.
The outcome of space debris is referred to as “space garbage”. It’s worth considering whether or not the ‘polluter pays’ principle applies. The launch mechanisms also fall down to Earth after delivering the payload into orbit, increasing the environmental concerns. Domestic legislation governing the reuse of launch systems and the disposal of “space trash” is long overdue.
‘Space’, for better or worse, has become a fundamental part of the 21st-century conflict. Space legislation in India would go a long way toward assisting the military in developing a solid space-war strategy and security plan. Furthermore, China’s highly charged display of military prowess in space, such as anti-satellite tests, emphasises the importance of domestic law and military strategy.
Finally, correct rules spanning the ‘space dimension,’ as well as the land, air, and water dimensions, are essential for India to be at the vanguard of a new international order based on creativity and technology, in addition to leading the way on space research and development programmes.
True, India has made small steps toward drafting an Indian Space Act, with the Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, now being considered. This Bill, on the other hand, has a narrow scope: it solely governs the gathering, publication, and distribution of geospatial data in India. A space law that protects sovereign, public, and economic interests on all fronts, on the other hand, is urgently needed. “A Space Act would enable the government to deal with legal concerns resulting from things placed up in space and what happens to them in orbit, or because of them,” the ISRO Chairman said.
Science, technology, national defence, and national security concerns and competence should not be limited to ‘space’. It must be regarded as significant for the typical citizen, whose life will be brightened by the vast good possibilities it offers. To attain this goal, a national space policy and legal framework are required.
While India’s progress is to be commended, the country still needs a complete Space Act. The only Asia-Pacific countries with national legislation that implement international conventions are Australia, Japan, and South Korea. India must also strive for it. This would operate as a stimulus for India’s space activities to grow and be regulated in accordance with global space dynamics. As a result, a stable space regime is critical. Its disappearance could stifle India’s future prosperity. To assure its formulation and implementation, we must take proactive efforts.
About the Authors
Ms. Trishla Parihar is a Law graduate, currently pursuing her LLM from Christ University, Bangalore.
Charvi Devprakash is a 3rd Year Law student at the PES University, Bangalore. She is also an Associate Editor at IJPIEL.
Managing Editor: Naman Anand
Editors-in-Chief: Jhalak Srivastav and Aakaansha Arya
Senior Editor: Muskaan Singh
Associate Editor: Charvi Devprakash
Junior Editor: Joseph Antony Paddikala
Preferred Method of Citation
Trishla Parihar, “Need to Tackle Space Debris” (IJPIEL, 18 March 2022)