Space objects that transform into space debris and stay for a long time in orbit are a threat to humans and operational space objects in outer space. Such space debris objects have no capabilities on-board to move them out of valuable orbital areas. Only external space systems with special design can capture and remove them, generally referred to as ‘Active Debris Removal’.
Given the present trend of an accelerated increase of space debris, Active Debris Removal is urgently required for the sustainable use of outer space. However, Active Debris Removal faces legal and political challenges. Have States a legal duty to remove their own space debris objects? Can a State remove the space debris object of another State without its prior consent? Which liabilities arise when an Active Debris Removal operation goes wrong?
There is no debate today that reducing the imminent collision risk presented by thousands of the most concerning large derelict objects in high Low Earth Orbit (LEO) must begin soon. Those objects have been identified and roughly ranked in order of highest priority, and commercial technology subject to still-needed refinements exists to remediate them, but planning among the principal stake-holding governments, Russia, China, the U.S., the European Space Agency, France, Japan and India, has been stymied by legal, political, national security, economic and funding hurdles. Several alternatives for Active Debris Remediation (ADR) of these objects have emerged from the academic and scientific communities. These range from doing nothing other than dodging the most dangerous objects, to a variety of cooperative models, to unilateral approaches (e. g., taxes, salvage, “leadership by example”). Cooperative approaches include private-public and public collaborations. Public cooperative structures include governments acting together, either directly or through intergovernmental agencies, under multilateral or bilateral engagements. All cooperative models optimize economic efficiency by maximizing overall risk reduction at the least cost – cooperation allows for multi-target missions unconstrained by target nationality. The most important benefit flowing from cooperative ADR is, of course, cost and risk sharing, but cooperative models vary depending on how well they overcome legal, political, national security, economic and funding hurdles to ADR, and how nimbly they meet the urgent need. Since cooperative planning will take several years before the first mission is possible, and missions will span decades before meaningful risk reduction is achieved, it’s important to start down the right path now in order to accomplish ADR before the next collision. Among all cooperative alternatives for ADR, TCTB’s (“Three Country-Trusted Broker”) unique private-public model is the best path to achieve a timely solution. Using a dedicated, single-purpose private entity to facilitate cooperation among stakeholder governments would simplify and streamline ADR, and best overcome the hurdles that have prevented ADR to date. Regardless of the model adopted for ADR, the world must find a path to a sustainable future in space for our children. Besides governments cooperating, diplomats, scientists, economists, environmentalists, lawyers and procurement professionals must all contribute their expertise to the planning process for ADR of high mass objects in high-LEO in order for it to succeed, but only in a way that avoids the divisiveness, parochialism and insecurity spawned by national allegiance. In the end, cooperating on debris remediation would bind us together as humans in space, transcending political differences and the conflicts that arise from competing national priorities. Who knows where that might lead.
Although space debris mitigation, through inter alia passivation and post-mission disposal, is expected to play a central part in ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities, numerous studies published by major space agencies and research institutes have demonstrated the importance of targeted active debris removal, not only for the stabilization of the space debris population but also to try to reverse the trend. In addition, the deployment of large constellations of satellites would lead, even considering an extremely small failure rate, to dozens of dead-on-arrival satellites threatening the stability of critical orbits, requiring the use of dedicated removal services. An appropriate legal framework for the conduct of active debris removal operations has been the subject of intense scrutiny in the space law and policy community in recent years, with the publication of dozens if not hundreds of reports, articles and conference papers. On the governmental side, only one country, Japan, has issued a dedicated licensing procedure and associated requirements for the operations of spacecraft performing rendezvous and proximity operations, including in-orbit servicing and active debris removal. Developed in part to license domestically the Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration (CRD2) mission, funded by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and to be implemented by Japanese industrial champion Astroscale, this world-first regulatory framework will be at the core of Japanese endeavours to exert leadership in global space safety and sustainability efforts. Beyond legal and regulatory challenges, active debris removal activities also have important perceived security implications. In fact, since the early development of technologies enabling rendezvous and proximity operations, there have been suspicions of nefarious uses, ranging from unapproved close inspections to co-orbital anti-satellite activities. Demonstrating and promoting the understanding of the limited security risks posed by such technologies will be critical for major industrial players and government agencies willing to push for the development of more active debris removal technologies and services. To this end, the open-ended working group on reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours established per United Nations General Assembly resolution 75/36 at the end of 2021 will provide an exceptional opportunity for governments, commercial actors and civil society organisations to clear any unreasonable perception of threats that may arise from the spread of direly needed active debris removal service providers.