International Institute of Space Law

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Issue 6, 2019 Expand all abstracts

Space Debris: Between Unity and Fragmentation – Risk as a Static Principle with Dynamic Outcomes

Keywords risk, space object, space debris removal, material environment, social milieu, collision prevention, harmful interference
Authors Ward Munters
AbstractAuthor's information

    This paper analyses the interrelationship between science, risk, international law and the prevention of collisions between space objects, so as to contribute to progressive development of international law and of an epistemic community invested with a common conceptual and terminological apparatus, as well as to examine interrelated juridical and technical obstacles and opportunities regarding the creation of an informed, uniform and therefore, it is posited, more effective regulatory regime.
    To contribute to establishing a common frame of reference, the article presents and explores an analytical and theoretical mapping exercise of some structural contours delineating mutual space object relations, positing the common construction of risk and its collective management as central to the asymptotic realization of uniformity in standards concerning space objects, space debris and its removal, and preventing physical interference or collisions. The paper proceeds from scientific insights into collision risk to uncover the extent of the technical notion of risk in this area before briefly examining how risk management mechanisms operate in international law to produce restrictions or permissions regarding future conduct, activities or incidents. Risk emerges as a ‘static’, i.e. common, principle with ‘dynamic’, i.e. variable, outcomes that may form the normative foundation of a uniform yet highly adaptive regulatory framework – a principle thus particularly suited to protean conditions in orbital space. Finally, some sketches follow of a heuristic device for envisaging the normative and jurisprudential construction of a static risk principle that can correlatively produce the substantively variable permissive rights and restrictive obligations as may attach to space objects, i.e. output, on the basis of evolving material conditions in orbit, i.e. input.

Ward Munters
Institute for International Law and Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, KU Leuven, Tiensestraat 41, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.

Out into the Dark: Removing Space Debris from the Geostationary Orbit

Keywords Space law, IADC, remediation, active space debris removal, Geostationary Orbit, GEO region, space debris mitigation guidelines, re-orbit guideline, Outer Space Treaty, Liability Convention
Authors Martha Mejía-Kaiser
AbstractAuthor's information

    During the first decades of placing space objects in the Geostationary Orbit, satellite owners and operators abandoned space objects at their end-of-life, or just freed the slot by removing their satellites with the last kilograms of fuel. Also rocket stages that propelled geostationary satellites were abandoned therein. Due to orbital perturbations at about 36,000 km, objects that do not have station-keeping systems can drift into the slots of neighboring satellites and disturb their operation. Space debris objects at this altitude take at least one million years to naturally de-orbit and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The accumulation of space debris objects that permanently cross the Geostationary Orbit is a growing hazard to operational satellites. Researchers at the IADC who published a set of Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2002, identified the Geostationary Orbit as a ‘protected region’. One Mitigation Guideline recommends to re-orbit space objects that are reaching their end-of-life outside of this protected area. A growing number of States and international organizations reflect the IADC Mitigation Guidelines in national legislation, recommendations and standards. However, there is still an increase of large space debris objects in this area. Since it is not realistic to wait (up to one million years) for the natural deorbiting of these space objects, remediation measures need to be initiated, such as debris removal with external systems. This article describes the State practice of re-orbiting and proposes a strategy for debris removal to maintain a sustainable access and use of the Geostationary Orbit.

Martha Mejía-Kaiser
PhD in Political and Social Sciences, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Member of IISL Board of Directors. Independent Researcher.

    My paper advocates for the creation of a legal policy aimed at accelerating the initiation of the “Space Debris Removal Business” as quickly as possible. This policy is focused on government compensation for situations where the damage in outer space exceeds an insured amount. The policy will cover any damage derived from active orbital services, including Space Debris Removal.
    There is a common understanding across the globe that Space Debris Remediation is becoming necessary to keep space activities safe and sustainable. It would be ideal if a core set of laws were applicable to all nations. However, because Space Debris is increasing rapidly, we cannot wait for the formulation of international standards.
    Therefore, I would like to propose a measure to minimize the barriers of entry into the “Space Debris Removal Business,” which features a compulsory insurance and governmental compensation system (by referring the system in the field of rocket launch) to encourage private companies to conduct Space Debris Removal as a part of their core businesses.
    To sum up, until the moment an international rule is established, each country should proceed in haste to implement legislation for eliminating space debris. As industrial technologies develop, I expect to see more nations voluntarily remove broken satellites as well as upper stages of rockets that they themselves launched. I hope to support a burgeoning international debate on this issue.

Mihoko Shintani
Partner, Lawyer, TMI Associates, 23rd Floor, Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-6123, Japan & Attorney-at-Law, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Ochanomizu Sola City, 4-6 Kandasurugadai, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-8008 Japan.