A Space Law and Orbital Debris

As mentioned in Chapter 9, orbital debris is not addressed explicitly in current international law. International agreements that directly address orbital debris, however, may eventually be needed to deal with a number of debris-related issues. This appendix briefly summarizes some of the existing space law potentially applicable to the debris issue and discusses some of the activities currently under way that may affect future international rule making on orbital debris-related issues. More detailed discussions of the legal regime and its application to the debris issue are contained in the references listed at the end of this appendix.

United Nations (UN) Treaties

In the past, international space laws have been created under the auspices of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). To date, three treaties with potential relevance to orbital debris issues have entered into force:

  • the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, October 10, 1967 (the Outer Space Treaty);

  • the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, September 1, 1972 (the Liability Convention); and

  • the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, September 15, 1976 (the Registration Convention).



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A Space Law and Orbital Debris As mentioned in Chapter 9, orbital debris is not addressed explicitly in current international law. International agreements that directly address orbital debris, however, may eventually be needed to deal with a number of debris-related issues. This appendix briefly summarizes some of the existing space law potentially applicable to the debris issue and discusses some of the activities currently under way that may affect future international rule making on orbital debris-related issues. More detailed discussions of the legal regime and its application to the debris issue are contained in the references listed at the end of this appendix. United Nations (UN) Treaties In the past, international space laws have been created under the auspices of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). To date, three treaties with potential relevance to orbital debris issues have entered into force: the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, October 10, 1967 (the Outer Space Treaty); the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, September 1, 1972 (the Liability Convention); and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, September 15, 1976 (the Registration Convention).

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Three articles in the Outer Space Treaty contain language pertinent to orbital debris issues. Article VI declares, ''States party to this treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space." Article VII makes states party to the treaty internationally liable for damage caused by objects (and the component parts of those objects) that they launch or have launched into space. Finally, Article IX allows states that have reason to believe that a planned activity or experiment would cause potentially harmful interference with other space activities to "request consultation" concerning the activity or experiment. The Liability and Registration Conventions further explore the liability of states for damage caused by their space objects. The Liability Convention makes states liable for damage "caused elsewhere than on the surface of the Earth to a space object of one launching state or to persons or property on board such a space object of another launching state … only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible." The Registration Convention seeks to provide information for use in determining liability by mandating that all launching states notify the UN of any objects they launch and provide the UN with the objects' orbital parameters. Article VI of the Registration Convention directs nations with monitoring or tracking facilities to aid in the identification of space objects that caused damage. Although these three UN treaties deal with some of the issues raised by the presence of orbital debris, many other debris-related issues are not addressed. For example, the treaties do not address the potential need for measures to reduce the creation of new debris. (The only reference that may be applicable is Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, which calls for "consultations" if member states believe activities or experiments would cause potentially harmful interference with other space activities.) In addition, some of the issues that are raised in the treaties are difficult to apply to debris. For example, the liability convention assigns liability based on ownership of the objects involved, but the origin of the vast majority of debris objects that are not cataloged cannot be determined. Even where the treaties may be applicable to debris issues, interpretation is often difficult because the legal definitions of "space debris" and "space objects" are not entirely clear. Expectations still exist that the UN may eventually create formal rules regarding the creation of orbital debris. The issue of orbital debris has not yet been treated in the COPUOS Legal Subcommittee, but in February 1994, the UN General Assembly made orbital debris a formal agenda item for the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee. During that session, the subject of orbital debris was addressed by many national delegations and a number of technical papers were presented. At the session, some delegations advocated that space debris should also be

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treated in the Legal Subcommittee, but other delegations considered such an action to be premature. Activities That May Influence Future Orbital Debris Regulations A number of activities outside the UN may affect future laws and policies on orbital debris issues. These include efforts by such organizations as the International Telecommunication Union, the IAA, the International Law Association, the IADC, and others. Three of these efforts are further detailed below: International Law Association (ILA) The Space Law Committee of the ILA has studied legal aspects of orbital debris since 1986. In August 1994, the ILA adopted (in a resolution) a draft "International Instrument on the Protection of the Environment from Damage Caused by Space Debris." This instrument, structured in 16 articles, is the first legal text on space debris agreed to by an international body. It contains a definition of space debris, describes the general obligation of states and international organizations to cooperate (inform, consult, and negotiate in good faith) in the prevention of damage to the space environment. Although this instrument does not constitute law or policy and does not address the technical means to reduce the creation of orbital debris, it could potentially serve as a first step in moving the debris issue into the legal regime. Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) Interagency orbital debris coordination meetings involving the ESA, the Russian Space Agency, NASA, and the space agencies of Japan are held biannually. Though these meetings do not deal with the legal aspects of the orbital debris issue, the technical issues of space debris measuring, modeling, and reduction techniques are discussed in detail. Since the four attending space agencies are involved in the majority of all space activities, these meetings represent the biggest forum of practical expertise in the field, and may help to provide the sound technical background needed for the development of any new legal rules on debris. International Astronautical Academy (IAA) The IAA issued a "Position Paper on Orbital Debris" in October of 1993. This paper was written by an Ad hoc Expert Group of the IAA's

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Committee on Safety, Rescue, and Quality, and was reviewed by that committee and by members of other IAA committees and of the International Institute of Space Law before being approved by the IAA board of trustees and published in Acta Astronautica. The position paper contains a brief technical discussion of the present and future debris situation and suggests a number of debris control measures ranked by priority. As the output of an international body of debris experts, this paper may influence future regulations on orbital debris. National and Regional Policies on Orbital Debris National laws or policies on orbital debris may potentially affect not only domestic space activities but also any international rule making on the debris issue: In the United States, current policy (issued in 1988 by President Reagan) states that "all space sectors will seek to minimize the creation of space debris…consistent with mission requirements and cost effectiveness." Another U.S. initiative is NASA's "Space Debris Handbook," which may become an important technical reference for space debris reduction measures. The Russian Federation also has a policy on debris, alluded to in Section I, Article 4, Paragraph 2 of its Law on Space: "For the purpose of ensuring strategic and ecological safety in the Russian Federation, the following are forbidden: …harmful pollution of space, leading to unfavorable environmental changes, including intentional destruction of space objects in space." ESA has had specific requirements to prevent the creation of new debris since 1988. In 1989 ESA's Council passed a resolution defining the agency's objectives in the field of space debris. ESA's policy is "…to reduce to the maximum possible extent the production of space debris and to promote exchange of information and cooperation with other space operators…" BACKGROUND REFERENCES AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). 1992. Orbital Debris Mitigation Techniques: Technical, Economic, and Legal Aspects. SP-016-1992. Washington, D.C.: AIAA. Baker, H.A. 1989. Space Debris: Legal and Policy Implications. Norwell, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Baker, H.A. 1994. Regulation of orbital debris—Current status. Pp. 180–188 in Preservation of Near-Earth Space for Future Generations, Simpson, J.A., ed. New York:Cambridge University Press.

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Christol, C.Q. 1982. The Modern International Law of Outer Space. New York:Pergamon Press. Christol, C.Q. 1993. Scientific and Legal Aspects of Space Debris. Paper presented at the 44th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, Graz, Austria: October 16–22. International Academy of Astronautics Committee on Safety, Rescue, and Quality. 1992. Position Paper on Orbital Debris. August 27. Paris: International Academy of Astronautics. U. S. Office of Technology Assessment. 1990. Orbiting Debris: A Space Environmental Problem. Background Paper OTA-BP-ISC-72. September. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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