Article by Harsh Dabas (14/2/2022)
Ever since the launch of the famed Russian satellite, Sputnik-I, which launched in 1957, we have sent thousands of satellites and rockets into the Earth’s orbit to explore the infinite universe however we have also been simultaneously creating a mess around Earth.
Currently, there are 2000 Satellites that are in Geo-Sync with the Blue Planet, actively functioning and transmitting signals from the Ground, however, there are also 3000 ‘apparently dead’ satellites that continue to revolve alongside their functioning Counterparts. The word ‘dead’ refers to their non-functioning state as they may have been phased out by upgraded versions.
Space debris also referred to as Space Junk, comprises leftover propulsion systems or satellite components that drift hundreds of miles above the Earth, posing a serious threat of colliding with satellites.
Basically, the discarded material from launch vehicles such as rockets, that get left behind, to roam around in space. Since this junk material floats around space, it often comes into contact with satellites or even Space Stations risking collision. Space debris can also come from explosions in space or through missile tests to destroy satellites.
According to the Department of Defense’s SSN sensors, more than 27,000 fragments of debris or ‘Space junk’ continues to revolve in Earth’s orbit, especially in the lower region of the Orbit.
Outer Space Treaty And Liability Convention;
The Magna Carta of Space Laws, the Outer Space Treaty was signed in the Fall of 1967 and gave way for international consensus stipulating that the outer celestial bodies will be solely used only for peaceful purposes, and prevents any sort of Military Activity in the Outer Space.
It also had certain Noble provisions and just like the other treaties, it also is subject to amendment and further lays down legally binding rules in the view of governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. It has been ratified by 105 Countries and is also dubbed as the ‘Constitution of Space’.
Many experts in international law believe that the fundamental provisions of this treaty are so well-observed that they exist as an entirely different set of legislation as “customary” international law.
Article I of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies“.
It is important to mention OST 1967, because it is the Cornerstone of Space Law and can be used productively to deal with the problem of Space Debris.
Another important aspect of this pickle, is the Ownership of the Debris, which can be used through an example.
Suppose a US-based telecom-operator launches a communications satellite and a part of the satellite becomes loose, say The Solar Array, but can be identified, collides with the antenna of a Japanese satellite causing harm to it.
Under Article VI of the OST, US bears an “international responsibility” for the activities conducted by its nationals up there, even if the nationals are governmental agencies or private entities. Hence, the US would be held responsible for the actions of its nationals, private entity in this case, and for the further consequences and resulting damage, if such mishaps create space debris and further aggravate this issue.
This is further explained at Length in the Article 7, along with a 1972 Liability Convention amplified the Liability terms set out in the 1967 Treaty.
Legal Gravity And Lacunae.
Like all international law, the Outer Space Treaty, is technically binding to those countries who sign up for it. However, the obvious lack of a “Space Para-Force”, a military branch of a nation’s armed forces that conducts military operations in outer space, implies that it cannot be practically enforced. So, the signatories could simply ignore it at will. Consequences for not complying could include (monetary) sanctions but, primarily, a lack of legitimacy and respect which is of substance in the international stage can be seen.
Despite its significance, we must consider that the Outer Space Treaty has some specific gaps to operate in the modern era since it is mostly focused on countries only.
Both gaps and unclarity in space law mean that the subjects, as well as the objects (non-state actors) of space law, are simply uncertain as to the legality or illegality of their proposed activity. Regarding ownership claims that aspect is under peril too when a group of eight countries tried to claim ownership of a segment of an orbit that was in the space situated above their land – since if their borders projected into the heavens, any “stationary” satellite there would always be within their borders. The more concerning fact is that this conduct later emerged into the formation of the Bogota Declaration.
Houston, we got a Problem over…;
Such an increase in space debris increases the potential threat to all space crafts, even the International Space Station, which has been hit by fast-moving debris — however, it didn’t cause much damage. A fleck of Paint smashed into one of its robotic arms, leaving a hole.
According to NASA, the rate of velocity and the amount of debris in LEO, present and future space-based explorations and operations pose a security risk to astronauts and respective property in space and on Earth.
The International Space Station has conducted 29 debris avoidance maneuvers since 1999, including three in 2020.
Since there are many millions more too small to be detected and the number is growing indiscriminately. Even the tiniest specks can cause irreparable damage — according to NASA, flecks of paint striking windows of space shuttle had to be replaced. It has even been speculated that at a certain stage, the sheer number of fragments of space junk will certainly cause an unforgiving “cascade of collisions” and could render an orbit completely unusable.
While satellites are only built to serve their functions well for a decade or so at most, they can hang around for much longer. Space junk only returns to Earth when it is slowed down enough by the drag of the atmosphere and, of course, Gravitational Pull of Earth. Since the atmosphere gets thinner the further you go up from Earth, space junk that high generally takes longer to come down of its own accord, and some of it could even last for centuries.
Even as space debris is clearly a significant problem that needs to be controlled with aid of existing legal instruments, it also represents an attractive investment and potential market, facilitating the development of technology solutions and the application of new measures to protect space activities.
Despite these glaring legal loopholes and challenges, the treaty has long formed the basis for international law and remains Neanderthal’s spine for outer-space governance. The intention that it embodied when it was first rolled out, to create law for space, remains sacrosanct – and whether any changes will be made in the future to reflect changing political and commercial circumstances is eagerly awaited.