Understanding the Case of a Legal Regime for Space Debris

Praharsh Verma,

Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. _________________________________________________________________________________ The U.S.S.R turned out to be the first country to send man into space, thus inciting the idea of space law and initiating the race for space exploration. Many advances have been made in space exploration since then. Human beings have achieved tremendous success all the way from multiple categories of satellites to creation of space stations and from setting foot on the moon to anticipating the approaching threats from outer space. Since the United States of America and the then Soviet Union began space activities with the launch of the first artificial satellites and the development of rocket technology in the 1950s, a growing number of states have been engaged in space activities or intend to use space more intensively. Despite the fact that these states don’t have the capacity to build up the robust space programs, some of them have at least setup space agencies. As of today, more than 50 states have invested in domestic space operations to some degree, and the number of national space agencies is steadily increasing. Aerospace operations are thus becoming less of a luxury and more of a requirement, as states gradually see them as a major future political investment. The potential adverse effects of space operations on the environment are self-evident. While there are a range of space-related environmental issues, the most conspicuous is the orbital garbage (space debris). It is proposed that an international dialogue should be launched as soon as possible, including the developed and developing states, with a view to concluding a consolidated binding legal framework for governing all the viewpoints concerning the utilization of space. Space is getting to be jumbled with litter. States have been propelling rockets into space, orbit and earth and beyond for almost 50 years. The space atmosphere is tainted by the remnants of defeated satellites and rockets and by the debris arising from their explosions and collisions. Space debris varies in volume from pieces of less than a millimetre in diameter to many meters across the spacecraft. The essence of this debris comprises unblemished satellites, rocket heads, and sections from detonated rocket bodies and pieces from crashes. Scientists and legal experts have been calling stated and global network to make a move and counteract the impacts of space debris on the environment. In view of these risks, the issue of space debris has been resolved by some initiatives. Specifically, universally received debris mitigation guidelines are diminishing the introduction of new parts into the circle of the earth. Within the space debris group, there is a growing consensus that a debris mitigation guidelines are inadequate to limit the orbital debris population and that guaranteeing a sheltered future for space exercises will require the improvement and deployment of systems that effectively expel trash from earth’s orbit. The size of the debris enormous enough to cause genuine harm, existing sensor networks are unable to track them and there is no handy strategy for protecting rockets against them. Thus, this form of orbital debris, therefore, presents an invisible threat to satellites working. In 2008, the UN created and embraced the committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in order to reduce space debris. These Guidelines give measures to be fused into space strategic and shuttle structure with the point of diminishing crucial orbital debris. These guidelines endeavour to universally institutionalize the well-being level of designing and innovation on spacecraft, however these guidelines are only voluntary and lack non-compliance penalties, as a result, they are not completely complied with by many countries.  Moreover, while the Mitigation Guidelines address the production of orbital trash, they neglect to address the evacuation of current orbital debris. MAJOR CAUSES AND EVENTS OF SPACE DEBRIS As per the United Nations, Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines (UN-SDMG), accidental or intentional breakups of man-made objects that were created during the launch of space vehicles and satellites has verifiably been the main cause of debris on outer space. Breakups have been the main cause of waste and represent 40 per cent of all the space fragments that have been indexed until now. There are numerous other types of space debris, such as spacecraft components being intentionally or intentionally exploded. Fundamentally, everything conveyed from earth to space could conceivably become space debris by colliding with or other debris or other functioning space objects. The major events that produce space debris are unintended collisions and deliberate satellite collisions. The first major mishap was the accident in Canada on January 1978 of the Soviet nuclear (uranium) powered satellite Cosmos 954. The satellite was launched on 18 September 1977, yet weeks after the launch it lost control and hit the ground. The incident was additionally the first where a State filled a law suit against another for property harm. The Soviet Union paid some 3 million Canadian dollars to Canada for the damage caused to Canadian soil by the deceased satellite. This is infact an important example of the threats of space debris and the outer space use of nuclear power sources.


In January 2007, as a part of the anti-satellite missile test, the Fengyun 1C weather satellite that was out of activity was exploded by Chinese ASAT (anti satellites missiles). Following this event, the amount of debris in the circle of the planet is estimated to have risen by 25 per cent. The cloud of debris produced after the impact is scattered in the earth’s orbit from 125 km to 4,000 km of altitude, affecting a significant portion of LEO satellites.


The crash between the U. S. Iridium-33 satellite, claimed by the privately-owned business Iridium, and the Russian military satellite Cosmos is the second biggest generator of waste effectively obvious and created around 1,700 classified debris. This accident occurred about 800 km altitude on February 10, 2009, yet their flotsam produced a monstrous cloud covering nearly all orbits corresponding to the interval between 180 km and 1700 km altitude which is very dense area of active satellites orbiting 600 km and 1000 km. This activity polluted nearly every LEO area providing a threat to any and everybody that crosses such orbits.



The ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’, also known as ‘Outer Space Treaty (OST)’ or ‘Magna Carta of Space’, is the principal and fundamental legal instrument regulating the law of outer space. It was made after UNCOPOUS (United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) introduced its fundamental principles standards administering the use of space and was based upon those pillars. The following is a list concept outlined in OST:-Use of outer space for peaceful purposes.It is strictly forbidden to put nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction in the Earth’s orbit or ant celestial body. States are required to assist astronauts in trouble whether in space, in seas or in regions of another nation, and are obliged to warn others about circumstances that may be dangerous to astronauts. States are required to take responsibility for the outer space activities of non-governmental entities under their control, as well as to define the nature of objects launched into space and the nature of any operation carried out in space, and to impose liability for any damage caused to Earth by a space object or to the property of another State in any space. Every item propelled into space remains the property of State that launched it paying little respect to whether it arrives in a sovereign area or the region of another state. States are obligate over the span of their activities to protect the outer space environment and to permit other states to monitor their space activities and to properly report the essence of their space activities.


According to article VI of the Liability Convention, a state will be held responsible to other states for the impact of orbital debris caused by nongovernmental organizations. Article VII of the convention declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space... and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its nature or juridical persons by such object or its component parts of the Earth, in the air or in outer space” A launching state is absolutely liable under the liability agreement for harm to the Earth’s surface or to aircraft in flight. The liability of states for the harm caused by their space activities are dealt with under the regime of Liability Convention. Article VII of the convention declares that “State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object... while in outer space.”PARTIAL TEST BAN TREATY OF 1963 The treaty on the Partial Test Ban is not a UN space treaty, but it is the first multilateral treaty to include a specific universal lawful obligation on the use of space by the nations. As per Article 1 of this treaty, it allows countries to prevent and discourage the testing of atomic weapons in space by their offices. Because this treaty is not replicated in other UN space treaties, it is forbidden to test these weapons in space only by the parties to this treaty. The Outer Space Treaty forbids the use of mass weapons in space and calls for full neutralization of celestial bodies. The essence of this treaty is to prohibit the nuclear weapons from being tested on heavenly bodies.


Many space faring countries and international bodies, including Japan, Russia, European Union and the United States, have worked to develop feasible and realistic ways and means to minimize or maintain a strategic distance from space debris. The United States Debris Mitigation For a long time, United States has been worried about the effect of space debris on the environment of space and built up a range of technological and policy-based solutions to counter it and established an organization known as NASA. The Department of Defence (DOD), an agency created by the US government, promulgated a 10 year plan to address the issue of space debris for the first time in its space policy.  The DOD was the primary US government office to make a composed policy for space debris. NASA and the Department of Defence are solely responsible for making their own strategies and policies on space debris in order to achieve the objective of reducing debris formation.


The European Space Agency (ESA) runs a Network of Centers that work together to coordinate efforts in Europe on space debris. In 1989, the Council of the ESA adopted a resolution specifying the goals of the agency in the field of orbital debris. The goal of ESA is to minimize the development of space debris to the maximum possible extent and to encourage information exchange and cooperation with other space operators.


The Russian Federation also has a debris policy enunciated in section 1, article 4, and paragraph 2 of its Space Law. The following things are prohibited for the purpose of environmental security in the Russian Federation- adverse contamination of space, intentional destruction of space objects, and any space activity leading to unfavourable changes in the environment. Russia adopted a General Requirements for Space Debris Population Mitigation in 2000. In this norm, the specifications are compatible with those of other IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee) agencies. Russia has set up a Space Debris Mitigation Standard, which again pursues the IADC rules.


A Space Debris Mitigation Protocol was first introduced by Japan's National Space Development Agency (NASDA) in March 1996. The Standard addresses all relevant issues related to debris such as collisions released debris, and GEO belt maintenance. In 2003, the Standard was revised to better align with the IADC standard.


International Space Law is one of the areas of International Law that will be at the focal point of consideration in a matter of few decades. This will also bring enormous improvements to the entire space law system, inter alia, as there are some shortcomings and lacunas that need to be discussed and resolved eventually. The idea of exploitation of space is gone head to head to with such a significant number of various elements such as international relations, technology advancements, private entities etc. No thought was given to the dangers of orbital debris at the beginning of the space age. Due to the increasing number of new actors with access to space and the potential of debris to become self-generating, space has become more crowded and an increasingly dangerous place. The Liability Conventions and other space agreements have certainly been made for the good of mankind, but the space debris poses a huge amount of risk to the future of humankind. This issue requires all countries to concede to some general measures, with worldwide collaboration. All nations must concentrate on PDD (Planning, Drafting and after that Developing) strategy. The present lacuna of worldwide law concerning orbital flotsam and jetsam should be loaded up with enforceable guidelines and definitions that give assurance and responsibility. Efforts ought to be made to encourage practices that can affect legislation on space debris.


Ansdell, M “Active Space Debris Removal: Needs, Implications and Recommendations for Today’s Geopolitical Environment” 2 June 2010 Princeton University 5 April, 2011. Chen, Shenyan. "The Space Debris Problem." Asian Perspective 35, no. 4 (2011): 537-58. Collins, Jennifer. "Junkyard in the Skies: Space Debris Threatens Future Space Missions." Harvard International Review 17, no. 1 (1994): 64-92. David T. “Towards a New Regime for the Protection of Outer Space as the Province of All Mankind” (2000) 25 Yale J. Int’l L.145 at 151. Jan Helge Mey, “Space Debris Remediation: Some Aspects of International Law Relating to the Removal of Space Junk from Earth Orbit” (2012) 61 ZLW 251 at 271.


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