Cleaning Up Space: The Development of International Space Debris Policies

Article excerpt

In an unheralded action in December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a comprehensive set of space debris mitigation guidelines, which had been adopted just six months earlier by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). This landmark decision represented the culmination of a 10-year strategic plan by the United States that was as much unconventional as it was methodical. Today, all the world's major space-faring nations and organizations recognize the need to control the creation of man-made debris in Earth orbit to protect the space environment for future generations.


The history of the growth of the planet's orbital debris population and the subsequent need to manage it is a classical tale of the unintended consequences of man's foray into a new frontier. The first object cataloged in Earth orbit in 1957 by the fledgling US Space Surveillance Network, as it was soon to be known, was not Sputnik 1, but a piece of space debris, namely the rocket body which placed the famous spacecraft into orbit. A half-century later, the orbital debris population that poses distinct hazards to the operation of the thousand satellites now providing invaluable services to the economy and security of the world numbers in the millions.

By the 1960s, a few individuals had the foresight to predict the accumulation of debris in Earth orbit, but not until 1979 did NASA begin a formal effort to investigate the nature and magnitude of the space debris population. NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center QESC) in Houston, Texas, is now viewed as the center of excellence for orbital debris research for the entire US government. The first national orbital debris conference was held at JSC in 1982, followed in 1984 by the first international workshop on orbital debris at the 25th Scientific Assembly of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) in Graz, Austria.

These initial and largely academic investigations into orbital debris soon took on a more urgent, operational character. Although NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD) had been examining the peculiar behavior of US Delta launch vehicles flown in the 1970s and 1980s to fragment spontaneously into hundreds of detectable debris after successful missions, the explosion of a dormant European Ariane upper stage in November 1986, into nearly 500 identified pieces served as a wake-up call to the world aerospace community. An international conference on the breakup of launch vehicle upper stages was held at JSC in May 1987.

A government: interagency working group prepared the first US national-level report on orbital debris in 1989. Recommendation K of that report called upon the US to "inform other space-faring nations about the conclusions of this report and seek to evaluate the level of understanding and concern of other nations and relevant international organizations about orbital debris issues." The recommendation went on to say that "where appropriate, the United States should enter into discussions with other nations to coordinate debris minimization policies and practices."

NASA had begun in 1987 a series of technical interchange meetings with the European Space Agency (ESA) to discuss various aspects of orbital debris research. Less formal meetings with Japan had also already occurred. In the wake of the interagency report, additional bilateral meetings were held by NASA with the Soviet Union (late 1989) and with China (1991).

NASA soon realized that maintaining separate bilateral working groups was becoming increasingly difficult and inefficient. In late 1991 the NASA/FSA meetings became trilateral with the addition of Japan, where space activities were managed by three separate organizations: NASDA, NAL, and ISAS. At the NASA/ESA/Japan meeting in October 1992, NASA proposed the establishment of a formal coordination group with an official Terms of Reference. …