Waste in Space: Remediating Space Debris through the Doctrine of Abandonment and the Law of Capture

By Nevala, Emily M. | American University Law Review, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Waste in Space: Remediating Space Debris through the Doctrine of Abandonment and the Law of Capture


Nevala, Emily M., American University Law Review


INTRODUCTION

Space is littered with junk, and we cannot simply call in the garbage collectors to clear it all up. The rapid increase of companies and nations installing satellites in orbit-amounting to "[m]ore than 5000 launches since the start of the space age"-has resulted in a ring of space objects around the Earth.1 An unhealthy production of orbital debris2 has developed from failures to successfully remove defunct satellites from orbit, collisions of objects in space, and installations of new satellites.3 For instance, in 2007, the Chinese government intentionally destroyed a weather satellite during an anti-satellite missile test, producing approximately 2500 pieces of orbital debris.4 Experts consider this "the most prolific and serious fragmentation" in space exploration history.5 Similarly, in 2009, a non-functional Russian satellite crashed into a functioning American communications satellite.6 This disaster was the first instance of two intact satellites accidentally running into each other,7 and the collision caused upwards of 2000 pieces of orbital debris.8 Orbital debris is not only an environmental concern, but it also poses a danger to current and future missions in outer space.9

Recognizing this growing concern, domestic and international agencies have created guidelines and parameters to mitigate the increase in orbital debris.10 Yet the even bigger challenge remains remediation, or cleaning up debris that already exists.11 companies and nations are now turning to Active Debris Removal ("ADR") to address existing orbital debris and its rapid reproduction.12 ADR "involves changing the orbit of a debris object via the actions of another system."13 This system may take different forms, and a number of interested parties have developed ADR systems to remedy the growing space debris problem.14 Some companies suggest utilizing a laser cannon,15 while others suggest using a net16 or adhesive on the side of a spacecraft that sticks to debris and drags it out of harm's way.17

Although strategists are advancing many possible approaches for addressing orbital debris, the lack of a cohesive and comprehensive legal framework frustrates these efforts.18 As companies and nations seek to take possession of or destroy orbital satellites and debris, the question of property and ownership rights lingers. While remediation efforts generally have broad support, private companies and countries still may not have the legal right to destroy objects in orbit due to a lack of ownership.19 There is the option for companies to undergo an ownership transfer process, but doing so could be oppressively expensive, remarkably inconvenient, or exceedingly time consuming.20 consequently, property law could make remediation efforts impractical and hinder cleanup efforts if a company must seek to transfer ownership of every satellite and piece of debris before taking remediation action.21

This Comment addresses the legal issues surrounding space satellite and debris removal by exploring the opportunities and limits property law imposes on companies seeking to conduct ADR. This Comment also describes the specific remediation actions companies can take in accordance with property law's doctrine of abandonment. These available actions are critical knowledge because, on the one hand, investors want to know the hurdles facing remediation companies so that they can understand how a company may conduct remediation legally and profitably.22 On the other hand, companies that own satellites in orbit need assurance that these remediation organizations cannot arbitrarily take possession of their property. These companies want safeguards to protect their property. clarification of property rights for objects in orbit is thus critical to easing the way for successful remediation.

Part I of this Comment details the current practices in post-mission satellites.23 It explains and addresses both Geosynchronous Earth Orbit and Low Earth Orbit, which are two regions in space where satellites are common. …

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