Space Debris and Its Threat to National Security: A Proposal for a Binding International Agreement to Clean Up the Junk
Imburgia, Joseph S., Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law
In 2007, a Chinese anti-satellite missile destroyed an aging weather satellite, creating millions of pieces of space debris. In 2009, the collision of two satellites created thousands more. By 2010, more than 95 percent of all man-made objects in Earth's orbit were debris. Such a sudden and massive addition to the space debris environment since 2007 poses a direct threat to operational satellites and continued space access. This in turn threatens U.S. national security, to which space access and use is vital. Unfortunately, future increases in the number of space-faring nations and corresponding launches will only exacerbate this space debris threat. Some experts now fear that a chain reaction of space debris collisions threatening sustainable space access for centuries is unavoidable unless international action to minimize and remove the debris is soon taken. This Article argues that such international action should come in the form of a binding international space debris agreement, and puts forth the draft agreement at Annex A as a starting point for discussion.
TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION II. THE MEASURABLE PROBLEM OF SPACE DEBRIS A. The Cascade Effect B. The Problem Is Getting Worse 1. China's 2007 Intentional Obliteration of an Old Weather Satellite 2. Low Earth Orbit 3. Geosynchronous Earth Orbit 4. China Is Not the Only Culprit; Russia and the United States Are Also to Blame 5. The Problem with Models III. THE NATIONAL SECURITY IMPACT IV. THE HISTORICAL LEGAL FRAMEWORK A. Space Debris v. Air Debris B. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty C. The 1972 Liability Convention D. The 1975 Registration Convention V. UNITED NATIONS DRIVES NONBINDING FRAMEWORK TO DEAL WITH SPACE DEBRIS A. COPUOS Makes Space Debris an Agenda Item 1. STS Discusses Measurements of Space Debris 2. STS Discusses Space Debris Mitigation Measures B. COPUOS's 2007 Nonbinding Guidelines for Space Debris Mitigation C. UN General Assembly Adopts Nonbinding Mitigation Guidelines VI. COPUOS's LEGAL SUBCOMMITTEE MUST PROPOSE A BINDING AGREEMENT A. Cleaning Up the Junk B. Spreading the Cost to Fix the Problem C. Space Situational Awareness D. Enforcement Mechanisms VII. CONCLUSION ANNEX A
[A]lthough the current hazard to most space activities from debris is low, growth in the amount of [space] debris threatens to make some valuable orbital regions increasingly inhospitable to space operations over the next few decades. Indeed, some experts at NASA believe that collisions between space assets and larger pieces of debris will remain rare only for the next decade, although there is ongoing discussion about this assessment. (1)
[D]ecades of space activity have littered Earth's orbit with debris; and as the world's space-faring nations continue to increase activities in space, the chance for a collision increases correspondingly. (2)
In 1986, the Soviet representative to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) "was of the view that the space debris problem affecting the space environment must be dealt with immediately." (3) Almost twenty-five years later, the international community still has not sufficiently dealt with the problem. Sadly, space debris continues to threaten the survivability of space-based assets and manned spaceflight. On March 12, 2009, space debris forced astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take shelter in an escape capsule out of fear that debris would collide with the station. (4) Based on the current space debris environment and the very real threat it poses, it is now time for the international community to heed the Soviet representative's advice and deal with the space debris problem. …