Discarded hardware, defunct and derelict satellites, spent rocket stages. The refuse of the space age—space debris—is increasingly pervasive in the orbits that many of the world’s valuable space assets occupy. Traveling at incredible velocities, even the smallest loose screw or speck of paint can have a catastrophic effect on collision with other objects in space. Debris poses an increasingly unacceptable threat to the safe operation of our satellites that is not going away; rather, it’s proliferating in trajectories that will take decades, if not centuries, to fall back to Earth. Yet, space debris is an addressable problem—a cooperative international debris removal mission could be a sound first step toward a lasting solution.
There are ways to remove debris from space, but complicated and unresolved legal and policy issues, in tandem with significant political and financial risks, impede progress and raise many complex questions. What debris should be prioritized for removal? How can removal be transparently monitored and verified to address its “dual-use” military applicability? How can the intellectual property of a defunct satellite’s owner be protected? The answers need international buy-in if space debris removal, a transnational issue, is to begin in earnest. Until then, the continued growth of space debris risks a “tragedy of the commons” scenario developing in Earth’s orbit.
As a primary space debris “polluter” and a leading spacefaring nation, the United States is in a unique position to guide international efforts toward a solution because it is among those with the most to gain from a “cleaned” space environment. With China and Japanactively developing space debris removal technologies, the European Space Agencyconsidering plans of its own, and the commercial sector eying the business case for debris removal, the window of opportunity to resolve these outstanding issues is opening.
To that end: building confidence and transparency in space debris mitigation and removal are important first steps for setting mutually agreed norms. The United Nations’ 2008 set of voluntary debris mitigation guidelines and 2010 Beijing Orbital Debris Mitigation Workshop, for example, established a dialogue on international cooperation regarding the problem.
But many conferences and meetings on this issue have been exclusive to non-governmental organizations and academia—failing to foster active state-to-state cooperation. Responsible actors in the United States government, such as the State Department and NASA, should redouble their efforts to engage with foreign counterparts on possible legal, policy, and technical solutions to space debris. NASA already participates in international organizations such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, which could potentially be a forum on the issue.
A more productive step, however, is an international mission to demonstrate debris removal technology by nations’ respective space agencies. Without practical experience in the technical processes and challenges in debris removal, the outstanding legal questions and their policy solutions will remain hypothetical—as will their proposed solutions. An actual cooperative mission, on the other hand, would necessitate international agreement on how to operationally handle legal and policy challenges. Such agreements, borne out of active technical cooperation instead of policy dialogue alone, would lay a more solid foundation for future debris removal guidelines—whether multilateral, unilateral, or commercial—than those that exist today.
An international mission could benefit the space environment beyond practical cleanup. Involving space “adversaries” such as China and Russia, whom the United States perceives as increasingly threatening to its space assets, in a potential mission would be a useful step toward constructive engagement, consistent communication, and mutual understanding on space issues.
For example, China has a vested interest in space debris removal and, indeed, has been working toward that end. But without communication and cooperation, China’s application of possible “dual use” technologies, such as a debris removal spacecraft, has left American security leaders speculating on, and often assuming the worst of, Chinese motivations and intentions. While U.S. law now prohibits NASA from working with China, a cooperative debris removal mission would be an opportunity to test Sino–U.S. space cooperation, alleviate security concerns regarding Chinese debris removal activities, and enable space activity norm-building between the world’s two leading space powers.
But until such cooperation begins, outer space will be polluted with more and more junk—jeopardizing its future use for all members of the space community. Only substantive, cooperative action will resolve the challenges that stand in the way of active debris removal. It is time the United States acknowledge the importance of this issue and take steps to get serious about active space debris removal.