Orbital Debris Mitigation Guidelines: A Model for International Collaboration and Consensus Building
Bilateral and multilateral dialogues in outer space exploration can be considered critical stepping-stones for building technical and legal consensus measures among spacefaring nations. These channels of communication also develop formal structures such as international organizations. It is instructive to follow the evolution of discussions concerning the development of guidelines for the mitigation of space debris because they offer parallels with the development of the Committee on Space Research’s (COSPAR’s) planetary protection policies.1 Moreover, the current international regime governing space debris mitigation offers lessons as to how COSPAR’s planetary protection policies might develop in the future.
In creating an effective international regulatory structure for space exploration, the United States has continually supported the development of these international forums to develop effective technical and policy consensus standards. One primary example of this is the development of a set of international orbital debris mitigation guidelines.
Concern for the impact that space debris can have on the utilization and exploration of outer space derives from the increased number of antisatellite tests conducted in the 1960s2 that would impact the national security of the United States. From a civil space perspective, NASA scientist Donald Kessler proposed in the late 1970s a dilemma where the collision of objects in space would create a congested low Earth orbit and make outer space not an explorable environment and unusable.3 The Department of Defense and NASA therefore became two of the largest stakeholders invested in addressing the orbital debris issue.
Scientific and technical research ensued, but the creation of a policy framework for addressing orbital debris did not arise until the late 1980s. Technical and scientific consensus occurs first at the national level through an interagency process. The first mention of space debris in U.S. national space policy was from 1988, under President Reagan, which stated that “all space sectors will seek to minimize the creation of space debris.”4
2 See the Crosslink issue on “Understanding Space Debris: Causes, Mitigations, and Issues,” Fall 2015, http://aerospace.wpengine.netdnacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/crosslink/Crosslink_Fall_2015.pdf, p. 5.
3 Later known as the Kessler Syndrome or Kessler Effect. See M. La Vone, “The Kessler Syndrome: 10 Interesting and Disturbing Facts,” Space Safety Magazine, September 15, 2014, http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-debris/kessler-syndrome.
4 Presidential Directive on National Space Policy, February 11, 1988, https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/policy88.html.
In 1989, the Report on Orbital Debris by the Interagency Group (Space) first showed the need for close coordination and consensus of orbital debris activities.5 Priorities and initiatives under U.S. guidance fell into four categories:6
- Preliminary research to define the debris environment more precisely;
- Ways to reduce data management limitations;
- Adaptation of several operational procedures to limit growth in the debris population; and
- Design philosophies for future missions and spacecraft that address orbital debris considerations.
It is important to note the difference between regulatory and non-regulatory agencies. Regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are responsible for collecting the comments and input of the private sector who have also adapted their own policies for addressing orbital debris.7
The interagency process falls in to place when other agencies (who are not the main stakeholders) are in some way involved. The two major agency stakeholders created internal policies for addressing orbital debris. The Department of Defense included orbital debris in their 1987 policy that sought to “minimize the impact of space debris on its military operations.”8 NASA adapted an internal policy—NASA Management Instruction 1700.8—Policy for Limiting Orbital Debris Generation that would “employ design and operations practices that limit the generation of orbital debris consistent with mission requirements and cost effectiveness and requires each program or project to conduct an assessment demonstrating compliance.”9
Both the 1989 and the 1995 interagency reports on debris emphasized the importance of international collaboration in order to find an effective solution for addressing orbital debris. It was recommended that the “continuing U.S. participation in the international dialogue on debris should continue to be governed by consideration of U.S. commercial, scientific, civil operational, and national security interests.”10
The interagency working groups for orbital debris are prime examples of how technical consensus standards are effective mechanisms for creating both internal agency and national policies. The development of technical standards on the national level is a key first step in bringing orbital debris standards into the international forums.
To promote consistency in policy and practice, the U.S. should develop and maintain a common approach for achieving U.S. policy and program objectives in formal international organizations such as United Nations for a and in informal, technical, government agency-level multilateral groups such as the IADC.11
While the United States was formalizing their regulatory approach to orbital debris, other nations were individually going through the same process. The United States took the lead on these international discussions through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, which created the platform for international dialogue for orbital debris. These high-level discussions between space agencies from the United States, the Russian Federation, Japan, and the European Space Agency led to an informal multilateral organization called the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 1993.12
The IADC is an international governmental forum for “the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space” with the purpose to “exchange information on space debris research
5Report on Orbital Debris by the Interagency Group (Space) for the National Security Council, Washington, D.C., February 1989, https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19900003319.pdf.
6 Ibid., p. 17.
7 See FCC Amendments for orbital debris at https://www.fcc.gov/document/mitigration-orbital-debris.
8 Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Interagency Report on Orbital Debris, Executive Office of the President, Washington, D.C., November 1995, p. 27. https://www.iadc-online.org/References/Docu/IAR_95_Document.pdf.
9 OSTP, Interagency Report, p. 27; and NASA, NASA Safety Standard: Guidelines and Assessment Procedures for Limiting Orbital Debris, NSS 1740.14, August 1995, https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19960020946.pdf.
10 OSTP, Interagency Report, 1995, p. 43.
11 OSTP, Interagency Report, 1995, p. 44.
12 OSTP, Interagency Report, 1995, pp. 43-44.
activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options.”13 Comprised of national space agencies, the organization is represented by delegates who have the high-level decision-making authority.
In order for international technical consensus to come into fruition, there are many steps that need to take place. First, for spacefaring nations, a technical consensus is reached at the national level. Second, international dialogue through bilateral, multilateral, or through the development of international and interagency committees develops. Third, the topic of interest is formally introduced as an item to be discussed at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). Fourth, mitigation guidelines through technical consensus is reached by member states and organizations at the subcommittee and committee level at COPUOS. Fifth, the guidelines are adopted by the UN General Assembly.
In the case of international debris dialogues to formally move forward as an international entity, many steps needed to take place. The process began when the United States began cooperating with other nations in orbital debris initiatives and expanded cooperation with other agencies through the formulation of the IADC. The United States, alongside many other nations, needed to have orbital debris formally considered as an item of discussion at the next Science and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) at COPUOS. What the STSC considered were items that included “scientific research relating to space debris, including relevant studies, mathematical modelling and other analytical work on the characterization of the space debris environment,”14 which was ultimately a result of the work of the IADC. Discussions over the next 5 years led the adoption of a technical report by the subcommittee and the distribution of the report to other UN entities including the Legal Subcommittee of COPUOS, UNISPACE III, and other international organizations.15 In 2007, the next step occurred when a set of voluntary orbital debris mitigation guidelines were adopted in the subcommittee and then adopted in the full COPUOS committee. The voluntary guidelines adopted at COPUOS was then forwarded to the UN General Assembly and adopted under resolution 62/217 on December 22, 2007.16
14 United Nations, Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Office for Outer Space Affairs, 2010, http://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/st_space_49E.pdf, p. iii.
15 United Nations, Report of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee on its thirty-seventh session, held in Vienna from 7 to 18 February 2000, A/AC.105/736, 2000, http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/oosadoc/data/documents/2000/aac.105/aac.105736_0.html.
16 United Nations, International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, A/RES/62/217, Office for Outer Space Affairs, 2007, http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/oosadoc/data/resolutions/2007/general_assembly_62nd_session/ares62217.html.