New Space and Tech

Space Law May Soon Focus on Space Debris Cleanup, Not Just Mitigation

By Elizabeth Howell
May 31, 2023
Filed under , ,
Space Law May Soon Focus on Space Debris Cleanup, Not Just Mitigation
Rendering of the ClearSpace-1 spacecraft capturing the Vespa in orbit.
Image credit: ClearSpace.

A test mission that involves cleaning up a piece of space debris by grabbing and moving it with a metal claw may preview how regulations could change in the future, according to a space law professor.

Clearspace-1, a mission with a four-armed spacecraft developed by Switzerland’s ClearSpace which resembles the prize-grabbing claw machine one would find in an arcade, is expected to launch in 2026. The goal of the CLEAR mission is to remove from orbit a Vespa upper stage that’s been whizzing around the planet since it was left behind during a 2013 mission. The European Space Agency backed the mission to demonstrate debris removal, although the Vespa will fall gradually back to Earth’s atmosphere over time regardless of intervention.

“The European Space Agency is thinking about other aspects not covered currently under the space debris mitigation guidelines,” Valerie Oosterveld tells SpaceRef. Oosterveld is a space law professor at Western University in London, Ontario.

Orbital cleanup is a growing concern — countless pieces of space junk currently orbit Earth, to say nothing of the thousands of functional satellites with which they share orbit. Thus, drafting community guidelines for how to clean up the space around Earth could be a logical next step in drafting community guidelines for space exploration, especially as technology evolves. If that happens, Oosterveld said, space agencies and companies alike could “adopt an addendum or revise the space debris mitigation guidelines to cover the cleanup aspect.”

Liability Convention

Most space debris situations fall under the United Nations’ Liability Convention that entered in force in September 1972. The nonbinding convention for signatories builds on language from the Outer Space Treaty, which is widely regarded as a foundational part of space law despite being equally nonbinding.

Simply put, both the treaty and the Liability Convention make the launching party responsible for the damage caused by any space objects on Earth or in space. There are subtleties, however, Oosterveld said, and some legal questions that could help resolve disputes have yet to be settled.

For example, the Liability Convention uses fault-based liability to determine who might be responsible for space debris damage. However, the convention has not been tested in court. (One relevant situation, the Soviet Union’s Kosmos 954 satellite crash of 1978 in the far north of Canada that spread radioactive debris across hundreds of miles, was settled before it reached the courts.)

As a result, “We don’t actually have this clear standard of care with respect to space debris mitigation, against which we figure out faults,” Oosterveld cautioned.

This lack of a clear standard can lead to complications, such as when a space object breaks up in orbit and causes damage as a result. Would every piece, even millimeter-sized fragments, be traced back to the launching state, and the party that placed them in orbit held liable? A precedent has not been established, Oosterveld noted. Not all pieces are even trackable, as NORAD only can see small objects of centimeter-sized scale.

Another question is what would happen if two objects in uncontrollable orbits crashed into each other. In such a case, Oosterveld said, the courts would likely be interested in how those orbits arose in the first place and whether the satellites could have been set on a more sustainable path before completely running out of fuel.

Space debris mitigation in the early 2000s

Space debris mitigation guidelines weren’t introduced until decades after the first satellite launch in 1957. There are two separate sets of guidelines to consider from the early 2000s, but luckily most aspects of them are congruent with each other.

The first set of guidelines was penned in 2002 by The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), an international consortium of space agencies that includes NASA, the CNSA, and the ESA, among others. Its guidelines are focused on prevention and minimization; in other words, creating as little space debris as possible and putting remaining space debris in orbits that would eventually cause it to safely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Then, following a 2007 Chinese antisatellite test in 2007 created numerous new objects (read: fragments of destroyed satellite) in orbit and spurred worries among the aerospace community, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) introduced a second space debris standard. These are similar to the IADC’s work in that they focus on prevention and minimization, Oosterveld said. So, in most cases, the two standards are congruent.

Not everyone follows the IADC standards or the UN standards, however; China has notoriously let several large rocket stages degrade and fall naturally into Earth these past few years, for example. But in theory, Oosterveld said, launching entities who fail to follow these community standards could also fail a court’s test of “standard of care” and thus be found liable for resulting damages.

Indeed, some countries take the space debris guidelines so seriously that they are included in the licensing process for launching satellites in the first place. These include the United States and Canada, Oosterveld said, though there are many more..

Space debris mitigation before launch

For those satellites that launched before the early 2000s, there are still standards of care that could be put into place after the fact. For example, some in the aerospace community before that time used to put satellites into “graveyard orbits” far away from others to prevent collisions and minimize the amount of debris they produced as part of the decommissioning process. If an older satellite is found not to be in such an orbit, it could – in theory – be found liable.

Naturally, this language is theoretical for the time being, as no one has duked it out in court.

But missions like ClearSpace-1 may yet prevent that from happening by reducing the chance of space debris causing such a catastrophic issue in the first place.

More questions will arise as new launching states enter the arena, however, especially with regard to liability of government agencies versus the private companies working with their space agencies. This is again why the European Space Agency is working on a cleanup mission — and why other countries and companies are also considering such measures in the future.

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.