This article originally appeared on Conversation. The publication posted the article on Space.com. Expert Voices: Commentary and Insights…
Stephen Freeland, Bond University Research Fellow / Professor Emeritus of International Law, University of Western Sydney, University of Western Sydney
Annie Handmer, Doctoral Student, Department of History and Philosophy of Sciences, University of Sydney
The space is getting crowded. More than 100 million tiny debris orbits in low-Earth orbit, as well as tens of thousands of larger debris and about 3,300 functioning satellites.
Large satellite constellations such as Starlink are becoming more common, infuriating astronomers and confusing casual sky watchers. In the next decade, we may see many more satellites launched than in all of history to date.
Collisions between objects in orbit are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. Several technologies have been proposed to keep debris out of harm’s way, most recently a plan by Australian company Electro Optic Systems (EOS) to use a pair of ground-based lasers to track debris and “push” it away from potential collisions or even out of orbit altogether.
Such tools will be in high demand in the coming years. But along with new technologies, we also need to develop the best ways to regulate activities in space and decide who is responsible for what.
Connected: Space debris cleanup: 7 wild ways to destroy orbital debris
Active garbage disposal
The EOS laser system is just one of many Active Debris Removal (ADR) technologies that have been proposed over the past decade. Others include sails, tentacles, nets, claws, harpoons, magnets, and foam.
Outside Australia, the Japanese company Astroscale is currently testing its ELSA system for trapping debris using magnets. British project RemoveDEBRIS is experimenting with nets and harpoons. The European Space Agency (ESA) is involved in a variety of debris-related missions, including the ClearSpace-1 space claw, designed to grab some of the debris and drag it into a lower orbit, where the claw and the trapped victim will end up living in a fiery embrace.
Close calls are becoming more common
Space debris is a very real threat, and interest in ADR technologies is growing rapidly. ESA estimates that there are currently 128 million debris less than 1 cm in size in low-Earth orbit, about 900,000 debris between 1 and 10 cm in length, and about 34,000 debris over 10 cm.
Given the high speed of movement of objects in space, any collision – with debris or a “live” satellite – can lead to the formation of several thousand more debris. This can cause more collisions and more debris, potentially causing an exponential increase in debris, called the “Kessler effect.” Eventually, we were able to see a “garbage belt” around the Earth, which made space less accessible.
Read more: Two satellites escaped a head-on collision. How close are they to disaster?
Recently, we have seen several “close collisions” in space. At the end of January 2020, we all watched helplessly as two much larger “dead” satellites – IRAS and GGSE-4 – passed a few meters apart. NASA frequently relocates the International Space Station when it calculates a higher-than-normal risk of collision with debris.
More satellites, more risk
The problem of space debris is becoming more urgent as more and more large constellations of small satellites are launched. In 2019, ESA sent one of its Earth observation satellites in a small detour to avoid the high likelihood of a collision with one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.
In just the past few days, One Web and Starlink satellites have been dangerously close to colliding. If the well-publicized plans of just a few large corporations come true, the number of objects launched into space in the coming years will be reduced by several times. up to ten times the total number of launched in six decades since the first man-made object (Sputnik 1) was sent into orbit in 1957.
Space law can help
Any possible technology to deal with the space debris problem should be carefully examined. At the same time, active garbage disposal raises political and legal problems.
Space is a territory beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. As in the high seas, space is governed by international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty and four other international treaties that followed it provide a framework and key principles for responsible behavior.
While engineers can foresee nets and harpoons, international law is bad news for aspiring space pirates. Any space object or part of a space object, in working order or not, remains under the jurisdiction of the “state of registration”.
Under international law, the seizure, deflection or collision of debris would constitute “national outer space activities,” meaning that countries that authorize or agree to an ADR maneuver are internationally liable, even if the action is carried out by a private company. In addition, if something goes wrong (as we know space is difficult), the liability regime applies to “launching states” under the applicable Treaty, which would include countries participating in the launch of an ADR rocket.
In addition to legal formalities, garbage disposal creates complex political, geopolitical, economic and social problems. Who is responsible for removing trash? Who Should Pay? What rights do non-space powers have in discussions? What trash should be preserved as a legacy?
And if a state develops the ability to remove or reject space debris, how can we be sure they won’t use it to remove or reject another country’s “living” satellites?
Read more: Rescue space debris, our cultural heritage in orbit
The experts are working to recognize and define the relevant regulatory “rules of the road”. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) deals with the management of outer space and has had “legal arrangements for space debris mitigation and recovery” on its agenda for many years. There are already several generally accepted practical guidelines for reducing space debris and ensuring the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, but each proposed solution raises different questions.
Ultimately, any waste disposal activity will require an agreed agreement between each of the relevant parties to ensure that these legal and other issues are resolved. Eventually, we can see the emergence of a standardized process in coordination with the international space traffic control system.
The future of humankind is inextricably linked to our ability to secure a viable long-term future for space activities. Developing new waste disposal methods and legal frameworks that make them usable are important steps towards finding ways to coexist with our planet and contribute to the continued safety, security and resilience of space.
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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