On February 10, 2009, the deactivated Russian satellite Kosmos-2251 and the American commercial satellite Iridium 33 smashed into each other at almost 12 kilometers per second, each shattering into thousands of pieces that continue to hurtle around Earth to this day. This collision remains one of the most drastic incidents of space debris creation in history.
The term “space debris” refers generally to the tens of thousands of defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, and other fragments of manmade objects that litter Earth’s exosphere. NASA tracks over 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger, 20,000 of which are larger than a softball. While catastrophic collisions like the 2009 event are rare, debris does not just disappear—it can stay in orbit for centuries. It does not take a large-scale collision to damage an operational spacecraft, either; debris as small as paint flecks can cause serious damage when flying at over 10 kilometers per second. For this reason, space debris of any size poses a significant threat to all space operations and is a top priority for every space agency in the world.
Many spacefaring nations have taken steps to reduce the threat of the production of space debris. In the US, the FCC mandates that all spacecraft must either deorbit upon deactivation or enter a “graveyard” orbit, one of such high altitude that the spacecraft poses a negligible threat. Other countries have implemented similar regulations.
However, preventing the production of more space debris is not enough. Even if no new debris is created, physicists argue that collisions between existing debris will exponentially increase the amount of debris in orbit and, thus, the frequency of collisions. This may lead to a runaway chain reaction dubbed the Kessler Syndrome, in which space orbit is so polluted that even activities like satellite operation, let alone space travel, become nearly impossible. For this reason, countries that launch spacecraft must begin to clean up existing debris in addition to limiting the production of future debris.
But despite its relevance to every spacefaring country, the issue of space debris is not adequately addressed by international law. Perhaps the most important international agreement pertaining to space research and exploration is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was originally intended to preserve space as a neutral sphere during the Cold War. While debris is not explicitly mentioned in the treaty, the agreement declares that states are responsible for their activities in space and for the effects of these activities on other states. Since debris negatively affects all spacefaring states, any nation that produces space debris should be required to assist in the cleanup.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to discern the origin of a piece of debris, which is an important factor when determining a state’s accountability, obligation, and right to remove debris from orbit. Under Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty, “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.” While this dictate appears reasonable—nations should retain the rights to their technology, even when that technology is in orbit—it has the unintended side effect of making debris removal more difficult, since only the nation of origin of a specific piece of debris can legally dispose of it. Moreover, most nations would hesitate to relinquish their property rights to other governments for the purpose of debris cleanup; many pieces of debris are highly sophisticated works of engineering and, thus, have industrial or military value.
Unilateral cleanup efforts may be met with suspicion for other reasons. For instance, China is developing high-powered lasers to destroy debris, but the Pentagon has warned that these lasers could also be used to destroy key American interests. This suspicion is rooted in an increasingly prevalent view of space as a military frontier, a trend exemplified by President Trump’s recent announcement of the creation of a “Space Force” whose mission will be to “strengthen America’s ability to compete, deter, and win in an increasingly contested domain.” Thinking of space as a battlefield will only make debris cleanup more difficult in the coming decades.
The militarization of space not only exacerbates the problems posed by existing debris but also threatens to produce even more space debris. In 2007, China carried out a successful anti-satellite missile test on one of its own deactivated satellites, creating a cloud of thousands of debris fragments that are currently still in orbit. This missile test remains the single largest debris creation event to date. Just this year, India carried out a similar anti-satellite weapons test, seeking to assert its military defense capabilities. If space becomes the battleground for a second Cold War with China or Russia, tests like the 2007 event and other shows of force will become more common. The debris they produce will make space travel and satellite operation more dangerous for all parties, “combatant” or not, increasing the risk of runaway collision effects.
Rather than treat the disposal of space debris as a point of contention, we must view it as an opportunity to secure future space activity and to foster conciliation between nations. It is evident that unilateral attempts to solve this problem are not viable. If we accept that we must clean up our mess in outer space, we must also accept that the solution must be cooperative and multinational. An international program similar to the International Space Station (ISS) should be implemented with the express purpose of cleaning up space debris; however, unlike the ISS, this program must include previously excluded countries such as China. Such a program would involve an international agreement that would promote transparency and technology sharing between all space-faring countries, and joint missions would provide nations with the standing to clean up each other’s debris.
We are at the cusp of a new era in space activity. As space exploration continues to progress and international divisions become more fraught, it will be more important than ever to protect Earth’s orbit from debris pollution. To confront these threats, we must abandon the paranoid and nationalistic mindsets of the twentieth century and treat space as a global endeavor. What better way to begin global conciliation than by working together to address an issue that affects the entire world? Space debris is a great threat, but also a great opportunity, to promote global cooperation.
Photo: Debris in LEO