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Confronting Space Debris with the Space Force

By Katie Eige

NASA estimates that currently more than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk” are orbiting the Earth. This debris can travel up to 17,500 miles per hour, making a small piece of debris in orbit fast enough to significantly damage a satellite or spacecraft. As orbital debris within space grows, coupled with an increased interest in public and private space travel, such debris may lead to many potential issues for the future U.S. Space Program and risks the safety and security of the U.S. Space Force.

International law has yet to define what is a space object, and what ceases to be a space object, which makes it more difficult to both regulate and control the debris. The European Space Agency classifies space debris as “all non-functional, human-made objects, including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering into Earth’s atmosphere,” while NASA classifies orbital debris as “any human-made object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves any useful purpose.”  The Outer Space Treaty has defined that the de jure jurisdiction of the space debris is usually retained by the launching state in which the registry of the object is carried.

The United Nations has attempted to combat this pressing issue a few times. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which forms the basis of international space law, only scratches the surface when it comes to space debris. Within Article IX the Treaty states that state parties to the Treaty shall “avoid harmful contamination” of outer space. Moreover, Article VII of the Treaty states that launching states will be held liable for the damage that is caused by an object that is launched into space or its parts.

In 2010, the United Nations developed the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. This guide sets out the guidelines for debris mitigation including steps like limiting debris released during normal operations as well as minimizing the potential break-ups during operational phases and limiting the probability of accidental collisions in orbit.  The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) have both attempted to tackle the issue of post-mission disposal of space debris, but since these rules are not binding, many states do not follow them.

Unfortunately, since across both domestic and international bodies there has been a lack of focus on the importance of preventing space debris, the space junk issue has only been more aggravated. Even though the United Nations has committed to keeping space clean, many individual nations have not followed in the path of prevention and clean up. For instance, in 2007, a Chinese anti-satellite test (ASAT) created over 2,000 new pieces of debris in low-earth orbit. In the year 2000, there were approximately 7,500 debris and objects in space and by the year 2020, this count has risen to over 23,000.

In 2019 the U.S. government recommitted its support for the space program with its passage of S.1790, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.  Subtitle D of this Act includes the creation of the Space Force, reestablishing America’s commitment to outer space. Along with the new Space Force, this Act recognized the risks of space debris, and established a congressional committee report to outline plans and recommendations to remediate risks caused by space debris.

Through the creation of the U.S. Space Force, the U.S. government is increasingly shifting toward space as a critical government sector. With the importance of space flight to the U.S. government’s initiative, the United States cannot afford to take risks of flight delays or shuttle damages due to space debris. With the upsurge of debris and lack of measures by nations with space and satellite capabilities, the U.S. program faces many risks that non-space faring nations do not. With the lack of binding international treaties dedicated to reducing space debris, this puts U.S. national security and the U.S. Space Force at risk before it has even gotten off the ground.


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