Technical approaches to removing space debris, like the Swiss
CleanSpace One spacecraft (above), first require legal solutions
to key issues, such as a definition of space debris.
(credit: EPFL)

Addressing the challenges of space debris, part 1: defining space debris

by Michael Listner
Monday, November 12, 2012

In a previous essay, I discussed some of the legal issues surrounding space debris remediation. (See “Legal issues surrounding space debris remediation”, The Space Review, August 6, 2012.) Starting with the issue of defining space debris in this essay, I will, over the next several months, attempt to flesh out some issues related to this topic and articulate solutions to them.
As discussed in the previous essay, there is yet to be an acceptable legal definition of space debris. There have been proposals for defining space debris, but these definitions are couched mostly in the context of legally binding treaties and liability for space debris. Given the current geopolitical realities, the prospect of a legally binding space law treaty addressing space debris is slim and, therefore, such definitions will not likely gain acceptance.

A more realistic approach to remediation of space debris is to apply a quasi-legal definition that directly addresses the problem of ownership under Article VIII, which is one the primary issues associated with removing space debris. Specifically, the current body of space law does not contemplate salvage rights to space debris because of the ownership issues related to Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty. Therefore, before space debris remediation can begin in earnest, the question of ownership and whether a particular space object can be removed must be addressed.

To that end, a definition of space debris designed to evaluate whether an object is indeed debris and whether a launching state could expressly abandon it is a prudent method of approaching the problem. The following may be an appropriate definition to address those concerns:

“Space debris” is:

  • a space object as defined by Article I(d) of the Liability Convention and Article I(b) of the Registration Convention;
  • that no longer performs its original function or has no tangible function or whose function is no longer required;
  • that either re-enters the atmosphere, remains in Earth orbit, in outer space, or on the Moon or another celestial body,
  • is either created intentionally or through the actions or inactions of a launching state;
  • may have economic value to a launching state;
  • may have historical value to a launching state;
  • and/or may have continued national security value to a launching state.

A brief discussion of each of these bulleted conditions follows.

Read more: The Space Review: Addressing the challenges of space debris, part 1: defining space debris.

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