A knowledge base for the stuff in orbit.

Treaties

Orbital debris is recognized worldwide as an issue, and it is commonly understood that international cooperation is a key part of mitigating threats from debris. There are international agreements already in place that either directly or indirectly require signatories to work to mitigate the treats from space debris.

Outer Space Treaty, 1967

In 1967, the United Nations committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space ratified the Outer Space Treaty, signed by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and several other nations. This treaty serves as the bases of space law to this day. Among other items, the treaty declared that, “States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities.” (Outer Space Treaty, 1967, Article VI) That means countries are responsible for the activities of commercial entities headquartered within their boarders.

Subsequent articles clarify that signatories are liable for any damage to objects in space and should make other signatories aware of any potential harmful activities. To comply, many nations now require licenses for all objects sent to space that often include some measure of the threat of debris impact.


Liability Convention, 1972

Over a span of almost 10 years of negotiations by the legal subcommittee of the Liability Convention, the General Assembly passed a formal agreement to add to Article 7 of the Outer Space Treaty. The agreement stipulates that the launching State is liable for damage caused by commercial or governmental activity in space. This means that countries are also responsible for any space debris created by commercial or governmental activity in space. It provides a legal framework for members to settle on any interference from other spacecraft or debris if necessary.


Registration Convention, 1976

The Convention on Registration of Objects Launch into Outer Space built upon the previous agreements set forth in the Outer Space Treaty and the Liability Convention. The Registration Convention created a means to assist other signatories in the identification of space objects. States are required to submit documentation with specified details about the spacecraft they have launched to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Currently, more than 90 percent of all objects launched in space have been registered with the UNOOSA.

 

Guidelines

While it is difficult to universally enforce standards on all actors in space, international bodies do have guidelines and frameworks that signatories and stakeholders are encouraged to follow.

 

IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, 2007

Licensing is an important part of keeping space actors responsible for their missions. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) within the United Nations has a recommended 25-year rule for a satellite’s lifetime. All satellite operators with assets in low Earth orbit and below are required to de-orbit their satellites 25 years after the end of its mission. All new satellites from the 13 countries represented by this committee abide by this rule.


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Best Practices for Sustainable Space Operations

In 2018, the Global VSAT Forum (GVF) Best Practices for Sustainability Working Group brought together satellite companies, launch providers, satellite associations, and other industry leaders to endorse “The Best Practices of Sustainable Space Operations,” a document outlining 5 major principles for maintaining safe operations in orbit.

Summary of main principles:

  • Operator exchange of information relevant to safety-of-flight and collision avoidance with other space operators and stakeholders in accordance with each operator’s country export regulations;

  • Satellite operator selection of launch vehicles with due consideration of sustainability of the space operating environment;

  • Responsible mission and constellation design to make space safety for spacecraft and constellations a priority;

  • Commitment to spacecraft designs that facilitate successful disposal (striving for a probability of successful disposal of 95%), actively avoid collisions, minimize casualty risk, mitigate risk of post-mission fragmentation, ensure sensor track-ability and facilitate spacecraft servicing and removal;

  • Commitment to space operations that actively avoid collisions, properly passivate satellites either upon end-of-mission or after a suitable active collision avoidance phase has been completed, dispose the satellites within five years of end-of-mission for maneuvering spacecraft and maintain accurate spacecraft positional knowledge.