Danger in space: How to protect Earth’s orbit from space debris?
The mass of the space stations, satellites and junk particles in orbit around the earth is more than 10,000 tons. Too much, say some researchers and call for a legally binding contract.
Sputnik 1 was the first satellite launched into space in 1957. For more than 60 years mankind has brought various objects into space – and left them there. Over 10 000 satellites orbited our planet at the end of 2022, including 7500 functional ones, according to the European space agency Esa. She puts the mass of all objects in Earth orbit at over 10,000 tons.
In view of the rapidly growing space industry, more than 60,000 satellites could orbit the earth by 2030, writes a research team led by Imogen Napper from the British University of Plymouth in the journal Science. It is therefore necessary to draw up a “legally binding contract in good time that will help earth orbit to protect”.
Earth orbit is a global commons
Inadequate international regulation on the high seas has led to overfishing, habitat destruction and plastic pollution, writes Napper’s team. Progress to protect them has been very slow. The use of Earth orbit is in its infancy but growing rapidly, underscoring the urgency of protecting it. “Like the high seas, Earth orbit is being viewed as a global commons in which exploitation of a seemingly free resource is increasing and the true costs of potential environmental damage are being masked.”
Collective, science-based collaboration is needed to prevent the same mistakes made in protecting the high seas from being repeated in orbit, the researchers write. The deal should include producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris from the moment they are launched. Finally, the treaty should require all countries planning to use Earth orbit to commit to global cooperation.
However, space is international territory, making a legally binding treaty difficult. “The central regulation is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967,” says space law scholar Marcus Schladebach from the University of Potsdam. “Although it provides for an environmental protection article, it only says something about ‘contamination is to be avoided’.” space junk or even bigger old satellites can’t use it.”
A return commitment is required
The problem: return campaigns cost a lot of money and are not worth it. Schladebach advocates the inclusion of a retrieval obligation in the outer space treaty. This means that whoever started something must also bring it back. The cost sharing for projects with several countries should also be stipulated.
“There is great silence on the part of the space polluters, i.e. the space states,” says the professor for space law, Stephan Hobe from the University of Cologne. “They say they’re either not responsible for it or the technology isn’t capable of it yet.”
In addition, according to the space authorities and companies, there is a lack of political pressure to solve the problem, says Schladebach. “Want to say that there haven’t been that many accidents that should prompt policymakers to take action here.” The biggest accident so far dates back to the 1970s. At that time, the radioactive Russian satellite Kosmos 954 crashed over Canadian territory, contaminating an entire area.
Debris becomes a hazard for space travel
When it comes to space debris, Schladebach finds it very easy for the aerospace industry. After all, you have the earth’s atmosphere. According to Esa, around 131 million objects with a diameter of more than one millimeter to ten centimeters are in orbit. You basically just let it sink down. “The earth’s atmosphere then works like a kind of oven and burns everything. But of course it’s not fundamentally the task of an earth’s atmosphere to work there as an oven.” Schladebach also sees problems with more stable and larger objects such as satellites from the 1960s and 1970s. These could largely cope with entry into the earth’s atmosphere and thus eventually become a potential danger from above.
The other danger is for space travel itself, because there are more than 130 million small pieces of scrap: collisions alone are causing more and more debris that can damage space objects. According to the Russian space agency Roskosmos, the International Space Station (ISS) had to be maneuvered into another orbit again at the beginning of March in order to avoid a collision with space debris. For the ISS, it was already the 334th evasive maneuver since its inception.
However, there are already approaches to protecting space objects. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna published the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2007 after international negotiations. The central point of these is that the aerospace industry has to think about what should happen to these objects after they have been used, as early as during the production of space objects.
But Schladebach also sees problematic solutions. There are considerations that a space object, just before it draws its last breath, is shot with a lot of energy into a very high orbit. Then people would only be faced with problems in three, four or five generations. This is called spending in so-called space cemeteries.
The previous legal system in space is characterized by a very high level of liberality, explains Hobe. It is obvious that restrictions are difficult to create, because the previous main players in space would now have to put shackles on their own actions. But if they oppose such rules, they would stand in their own way, says Hobe. “They cut off the opportunity to continue exploring and, above all, to use space themselves, also through their private companies.” Outer space law is essentially international law and nothing happens without the will and the individual interests of the states. While Hobe sees these interests growing, there is still a long way to go before anything really changes in the rules for space debris.