Sputnik 1 was the first satellite to be launched into space in 1957 and a stream of objects have followed in its trail, presenting a growing danger in space.
After all, more than 10,000 satellites were orbiting the earth – 7,500 of them functional – at the end of last year, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).
The mass of space trash weighs more than 10,000 tons, ESA says.
And that is set to expand rapidly, in line with the swift growth of the space industry. There may well be more than 60,000 satellites orbiting the Earth by 2030, say scientists at Plymouth University in Britain. They want to see a “timely, legally binding treaty to help protect the Earth’s orbit”, they say in a paper in Science trade journal.
After all, look at the world’s oceans, where insufficient regulation worldwide has led to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration and plastic pollution in the seas, writes the team led by Imogen Napper. Progress towards better protecting the oceans has been achingly slow.
The exploitation of the Earth’s orbit is still in its infancy, but is increasing rapidly, highlighting the need for urgency, they say.
“Like the high seas, Earth’s orbit is seen as a global commons, where exploitation of what may appear to be a free resource is growing and the true costs of potential environmental damage are obscured,” the scientists warn.
To avoid repeating the mistakes made in the high seas, collective, science-based cooperation is needed to protect space, say the scientists.
The agreement should include producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris from the moment they are launched.
Finally, the treaty should require that all countries planning to use the Earth’s orbit commit to global cooperation.
However, space is international territory, making a legally binding treaty difficult. “The central regulation is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967,” says space law scholar Marcus Schladebach of Potsdam University, in Germany.
“It does provide for an environmental protection article, but it only says something about ‘contamination is to be avoided’. You won’t be able to apply that to the retrieval of such small space debris or even larger old satellites,” he says.
The problem is that it costs a lot of money to carry out retrieval operations and it is not seen as a worthwhile investment.
Schladebach proposes including a retrieval requirement in the Outer Space Treaty, which would mean anyone who launches something into space also has to retrieve it.
Cost-sharing in projects that involve several states should also be stipulated, he recommends.
“There is a lot of silence on the part of the space polluters, meaning the space states,” says Stephan Hobe, a professor of space law at the University of Cologne.
“They say they are either not responsible for it or the technology is not yet capable of it.”
A further issue is that space agencies and companies are not subject to political pressure to solve the problem, says Schladebach. “What I mean is that there have not yet been so many accidents that would then prompt lawmakers to take action.”
The worst accident was back in 1978 when the Soviet nuclear satellite Kosmos 954 crashed over Canadian territory, spreading radioactive debris across a vast region.
When it comes to orbital debris, the space industry makes it very easy for itself, reasoning that the Earth’s atmosphere is there as protection, after all, Schladebach says.
But consider the fact that there are about 131 million objects with a diametre of more than 1mm to 10cm in orbit around the Earth, according to ESA. Basically, up until now the spirit is to just let them fall.
“The Earth’s atmosphere then works like a kind of oven and burns everything up. But of course that is not the fundamental task of the Earth’s atmosphere, to function as an oven.”
The situation is more complex when it comes to larger objects like the satellites built in the 1960s and 70s, which could well make it through the Earth’s atmosphere, presenting a potential danger to the planet below, Schladebach says.
The other danger is to space travel itself, creating a larger problem than the 130 million small pieces of debris. Collisions too are creating more and more space junk.
The International Space Station (ISS) had to be manoeuvred into another orbit at the beginning of March to avoid a collision with space debris, in the 334th evasive manoeuvre for the ISS since its inception, according to Russia’s aerospace body Roscosmos.
Some attempts are being made to protect the space from objects, starting with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa) in Vienna, which published the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2007 after international negotiations.
The aim is to nudge the space industry into thinking about what happens to space objects once they have been used. Some solutions are problematic however, says Schladebach. What if an object was shot far into space, using a great deal of power, shortly before becoming defunct? That would delay the problem for three, four or five generations, in what is known in the industry as a transfer to a graveyard orbit.
The current legal system in space is shaped by liberalism, says Hobe, meaning any restrictions would be difficult to introduce as they would force the major space actors to restrict their own activities.
But by opposing these rules, they are also standing in their own way, says Hobe.
“They are cutting off the possibility of continuing to explore and, above all, use space themselves, also through their private companies.”
Space law is international law, and without the will and the interest of the states, nothing is possible. While interest is growing, there is still a long way to go before we clean up our act on space debris. – dpa/Lukas Fortkord