The area immediately above our planet where most of our satellites live might seem like an inexhaustible place, but it’s not. Low Earth orbit is quickly filling up with all sorts of junk, and the potential for a disaster has never been greater. Here’s how laws and international treaties can help—and why we need to adopt a conservationist approach to space.
The industrialization of space has begun, and by virtue of this development, we’re making it a very dangerous and precarious place.
We’re still very much in the nascent stages of this trend, but it’s quickly picking up steam. From comsats and space-based telescopes to art projects and urns filled with the ashes of dead humans (cats, too), we’re now tossing objects into space with reckless abandon. The current shift toward low-cost launches and the use of inexpensive, compact satellites means more stuff is going into space now than at other point in our history. Compounding this is the prospect of building commercial constellations consisting of hundreds—and even thousands—of interconnected satellites. And with China announcing its intentions to place solar power stations in orbit, the industrialization of space is set to take on an entirely new pace.
The U.S. Space Surveillance Network says around 29,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters are currently in low Earth orbit (LEO), some traveling at speeds approaching 10 kilometers (6 miles) per second. As hard is it may be to believe, no internationally binding treaty exists to control the number of objects permissible in LEO, and domestic laws are vague on the matter.
But as the density of objects in LEO increases, so too does the chance of a catastrophic collision. Obviously, collisions are unfortunate because they result in the destruction of expensive and important equipment, but smash-ups in space also generate debris. The nightmare scenario, as featured in the 2013 sci-fi film Gravity, is a gigantic ball of cascading debris spinning around the Earth, destroying anything in its path in a hypothetical prospect known as a Kessler Syndrome. The loss of LEO as an accessible workspace in space and the satellites within it would be, in a word, bad.
“Once you start creating clouds of debris, the chances of additional accidents increase,” Jessica West, a program officer at Project Ploughshares and the managing editor of its Space Security Index, told Gizmodo. “And unlike a car accident on Earth, there isn’t a tow truck available to clean up the mess. Just think what driving would be like if we couldn’t clear messes off of the roads. Well, this where we are in space.”
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an expert on space-based activities, said the current odds of a collision in LEO are now too high, and something meaningful has to be done about it. While it’s tempting to think of space as infinite backyard to send our toys, looks can be deceiving, he said.
“Instead of imagining a snapshot of where all our satellites are at a given point in time—where the distance between two typical pieces is hundreds of miles—try instead to imagine a timelapse photo around a minute long,” he told Gizmodo. “Each object is traveling several hundred miles an hour, so the timelapse photo will suddenly look really crowded. It’s the speed that gets you—speed makes each object effectively bigger, and we’re now entering a phase where the rate of a mutual collision is one every few years.”
West is concerned about the trend toward cheaper, smaller spacecraft that are meant to be replaced after a short period of time—some after as little as two years. While there are many benefits to this approach, she believes the onus should be on operators to have a clear mechanism in place to de-orbit these objects quickly. The current rule is 25 years, but that’s insufficient, she said.
“It’s not just nations, but the commercial sector that needs to be engaged in this issue,” she said. “On the bright side, it’s probably the issue with the most awareness and consensus, but that doesn’t mean that changing behavior is easy.”
Another problem with congestion, said West, has to do with inadequate space situational awareness and traffic management, that is, the ability to accurately monitor the movement of objects in space. West pointed to a 2017 study commissioned by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC)—an international forum of governmental bodies—concluding that current debris mitigation guidelines will be insufficient in the wake of thousands of new spacecraft in orbit.
As noted by West, there’s an informal agreement among nations and corporations to give their satellites a 25-year lifespan, after which time they’re supposed to de-orbit and burn up during re-entry. Unfortunately, a coherent agreement, like an international treaty specific to space junk, does not yet exist. Unwilling to wait for nations to get their collective act together on the matter, the IADC published its Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2007, which outlines sensible, but voluntary, rules to keep space as trash-free as possible. In 2016, the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) agreed to a set of guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of space, but its working group is struggling to “reach consensus on its final report or on how to refer the preamble and guidelines to the General Assembly,” according to UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs.
Outer space has been governed by various international space laws since the 1960s, and many countries have used these laws to enact domestic policies, explained Bayar Goswami, a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University. These laws include five UN treaties, rules and regulations stipulated by the International Telecommunication Union, and several other international space-related agreements. Interestingly, Goswami said the UN’s Outer Space Treaty (OST), to which 107 nations are bound, could be used to restrict the type and volume of objects tossed into space.
“While there is no direct provision in the OST limiting the volume of satellites that states can place in orbit, there is a direct restriction based on the ‘type or functionality’ of a space object,” Goswami told Gizmodo.
At the same time, the right to explore and use space comes with certain duties and obligations, as the first article of the treaty points out. In particular, “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries and outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all states without discrimination of any kind,” and “states are required to conduct all their activities in outer space giving due regard to the corresponding interests of all the other [states party] to the treaty,” as paraphrased by Goswami.
“In the absence of an explicit provision limiting satellite population—and more importantly, space debris population—I believe one could make a strong case against what could in future be perceived as the abuse of Earth orbits based on broad legal principles emanating from the OST,” said Goswami. “While such broad interpretation of law may be a stretch, especially when no explicit prohibition on creation of space debris exists, nonetheless the above interpretation stands solid on legal grounds.”
Goswami’s idea is intriguing—and it might actually work—but his interpretation of existing laws may not be shared by others.
But as McDowell pointed out, “individual countries have the teeth” to regulate these matters internally. A commercial company in the United States, for example, can only operate in space after receiving a license from the U.S. government. Responsible governments should be able to enact effective laws, he said, but some might choose to violate these norms and enact lax regulations.
Ideally, existing international treaties could be modified to include provisions about limiting the types and volume of objects permissible in space. Or better yet, a treaty specific to the matter. Sadly, nothing like this appears to be germinating at the moment.
The way to move forward, said West, is to agree to what the best practices should be and bring all stakeholders on board, including the commercial sector.
“The good news is that there aren’t that many states or companies with launch capabilities (at the moment), and even satellite manufacturing is rather concentrated,” West said. “A treaty may be possible, in which case it would build on the process at COPOUS. But the era of new space treaties ended in the 1970s.”
Laws and treaties are hugely important, but what’s also needed is a cultural shift. We need to approach space, whether it be LEO, Mars, or the asteroid belt, with a conservationist attitude. Our current tack is a kind of free-for-all, but that’s not a viable long-term approach.
McDowell said it’s not reasonable to preserve sections of LEO the way one might designate and protect a national park, but it might be possible to enact something akin to environmental regulations. A good approach, he said, would be to enact a set of best practices, and maintain stewardship of space in the same way a forestry service would guard the woods.
“Ultimately, my main message is this: We need to start looking at this more holistically,” said McDowell. “Space environmentalism could be a blanket way of not just thinking about space junk, but also space weapons, planetary protections, and how we use the Solar System—which are all different aspects of the stewardship of our space environment.”
West echoed McDowell’s suggestion, saying, “I really like the idea of focusing on environmental protection of what is a global commons, or a common heritage of [humankind], which to me seems even stronger than a global commons.”
Goswami said humanity is increasingly looking outward into space to “satiate its ever-growing greed” and compete for the “resources and many benefits that come from outer space.” Sadly, he said we’re now “callously littering the orbits around the Earth and now extending, what in my opinion is a flawed value paradigm—anthropocentrism—to outer space.”
We should adopt values consistent with a cosmological, or universal, point of view, he said, rather than an anthropomorphic, or Earth-centered view—meaning we should take care of things beyond our planet, such as LEO, the Moon, Mars, and so on, while at the same time remembering that we’re not the only intelligent species on Earth, or beyond.
“The answer again definitely is legally binding international agreements,” he said—agreements to ensure that resources are available to future generations, that space be made accessible to all, and that we do these things without taking unnecessary and dangerous risks.
There is another solution to space junk, of course, and that’s by manually cleaning up LEO with advanced space-based technology. Efforts are currently underway to create cubesats with deployable drag brakes and parachutes to increase the rate of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. These passive efforts at debris removal would be supplemented by more active efforts‚ basically space-based garbage trucks that use nets, harpoons, and other tools to snatch junked satellites, and then, together, burn up on re-entry. As McDowell pointed out, however, this prospect is fraught with complications.
“It’s not currently legal to grab a satellite that belongs to another country without them agreeing to it—it could be seen as an aggressive act,” he said. “Another problem is that not all space junk is fully identified. Some pieces of debris can’t be traced back to the launch from which it came from,” so the collecting of space junk will present both “technological and diplomatic challenges,” the solutions to which aren’t immediately clear outside of a coherent treaty.
In the end, it’ll likely require all of these elements—domestic laws, international treaties, space-based technologies, and a cultural shift—to keep LEO as garbage-free and safe as possible. As to whether or not we have the resolve to address the problem before it’s too late is another question entirely.