Scientists Urge for Global Laws to Tackle Space Debris

By Pranav Mahapatra

March 11, 2023
Satellite hit by a space debris, animation by ESA

Amid the emerging Space Era and commercialization of the space industry, “UNOOSA’s 5 Outer Space Treaties” have already been amended for regulating the emerging industry.

The set of outer space treaties primarily includes laws regarding space exploration, astronaut safety, the liability of space activities, protection of celestial bodies, and freedom of and peaceful space exploration.

However, the existing and rising number of satellite launches into the Earth’s orbits poses many risks with the space debris that has been overlooked and scientists are demanding global action to tackle space debris considering rising concerns with space junk.

How Much Space Debris is Around the Earth?

As of 2022, ESA estimates a total of about 15070 rocket launches have been placed into the Earth orbit, out of which 9790 satellites are still in space and 7200 of them are still functional1.

ESA estimates about 32300 debris objects are regularly tracked by Space Surveillance Networks and maintained in their catalog1.

Not all objects are tracked; based on statistical models ESA estimates the space debris to be1:

  • 36500 space debris objects greater than 10 cm
  • 1000000 space debris objects from greater than 1 cm to 10 cm
  • 130 million space debris objects from greater than 1 mm to 1 cm

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has successfully launched more than 3,000 Starlink satellites into the low Earth orbit (LEO), which is already highly populated.

Their plan is to deploy a total of 12,000 satellites by 2026, and they are currently on schedule to achieve this goal.

An estimate by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) predicts the launch of an additional 58,000 by 2030 2.

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Different sources may have different numbers to present however, all of them agree with the risks of the rising number of space debris.

Rising Risks with Space Debris

Space debris is a growing problem for space exploration and has been identified as a significant threat to space missions, satellites, and the safety of astronauts.

The following are some of the rising risks associated with space debris:

  • Collisions with Satellites and Spacecraft: High-speed collision in space debris with other objects in space can cause significant damage to the equipment and make it useless.
  • Threat to Space Exploration: As the amount of space debris continues to increase, the risk of collisions will only continue to rise, which could potentially hinder future space exploration missions.
  • Threat to Astronaut Safety: Even small pieces of debris can cause serious damage to spacecraft, potentially causing catastrophic events; threatening astronaut safety.
  • Cost Implications: The increasing amount of space debris also poses significant economic risks, as it can lead to the loss of expensive satellites and other space equipment.
  • Long-Term Impact on Space Activities: Space debris can remain in orbit for decades or even centuries, continuing to pose a risk to space activities which could limit the ability to use certain orbits and make it more difficult to conduct space missions.
  • Environmental Impact: Space debris can also pose environmental risks, as it can re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and potentially cause damage to buildings, vehicles, and other structures on the ground.

On February 10th, 2009, the first-ever accidental collision between two satellites took place at an altitude of 776 km above Siberia.

The collision involved a privately owned American communication satellite called Iridium-33 and a Russian military satellite known as Kosmos2251.

The collision occurred at a speed of 11.7 km/s, resulting in the destruction of both satellites and the generation of more than 2300 trackable fragments.

Since then, some of these fragments have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, decaying and burning up.

There have been much more incidents like these over the years, and the amount of space debris generated by these collisions continues to increase.

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Addressing and solving the problems with space debris require international cooperation and innovative solutions to reduce the amount of debris in orbit and mitigate its impacts.

Experts’ Concerns Regarding Space Debris

Jennifer Sills in the editors note related article on Science.org quotes:

“Like the High Seas, Earth’s orbit is seen as 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 exploitation of Earth’s orbit in its infancy but on a fast trajectory highlighting the need for urgency.”

Scientists from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, University of Plymouth, Arribada Initiative, University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology, Spaceport Cornwall, and Zoological Society of London (ZSL) highlighted the pressing need for a worldwide agreement on managing Earth’s orbit and raised their concerns in an article published in the journal Science.

University of Plymouth research fellow, Dr. Imogen Napper emphasizes the need for a global treaty on space debris:

“The issue of plastic pollution, and many of the other challenges facing our ocean, is now attracting global attention. However, there has been limited collaborative action and implementation has been slow. Now we are in a similar situation with the accumulation of space debris,” Napper said. “Taking into consideration what we have learned from the high seas, we can avoid making the same mistakes and work collectively to prevent a tragedy of the commons in space. Without a global agreement, we could find ourselves on a similar path.”

Dr. Napper, together with Melissa Quinn, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, and Dr. Kimberley Miner from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, explain how neglecting the protection of oceans has resulted in widespread environmental issues such as overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and the ubiquitous presence of plastic pollution:

“To avoid repeating the mistakes that have left the high seas – and all who depend on them – vulnerable, we need collective cooperation, informed by science, to develop a timely, legally binding treaty to help protect Earth’s orbit”

References

  1. ESA, ‘Space debris by the numbers‘, 22 December 2022, (Accessed: 10 March 2023) [][][]
  2. United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), ‘Large Constellations
    of Satellites Mitigating Environmental and Other Effects
    ‘, September 2022, p.[3], “(…)one estimate predicts the launch of an additional 58,000 by 2030.”[]
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