Space activities play a significant role in improving the quality of life and tackling challenges, like climate change, whilst continuously contributing to socio-economic benefits they produce. The ambitious, innovative concepts of private entities and traditional space actors relying on advancements in technology, enable low-cost development, miniaturization and deployment of numerous objects in one single launch. Whilst technically attractive, this causes an exponential growth of the object population, particularly in the congested LEO. Risks of collisions and in-orbit break-ups lead to dangerous cascade effects (Kessler Syndrome). The amount of space debris is one of the greatest challenges for the long-term sustainability of space activities; it impedes the use of orbits and the Kessler Syndrome is a constant threat. Space debris generate immense associated costs, impacting negatively on socio-economic benefits.
The corpus iuris spatialis contains several important obligations calling for sustainable space, e.g., Arts. I, II, III OST, with references to international, and by definition, international environmental law, and Arts. VI, VII, IX OST.
The following soft-law frameworks address the issue of space debris:
IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines;
UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines;
European Code of Conduct for Space Debris Mitigation;
ISO standard 24113:2011 (Space systems: space debris mitigation requirements);
ITU recommendation ITU-R S.1003 (Environmental protection of the geostationary-satellite orbit); and
While these guidelines are generally complied with, the standards require constant perfection to achieve the goal. National space laws and/or product assurance and safety requirements contain provisions for space debris mitigations as licensing prerequisite. Pre-mission environmental impact assessments are increasingly significant, with sustainable mission concepts becoming competitive advantages from a regulatory perspective.
The LTS guidelines contain the first internationally (by consensus) agreed building blocks for an urgently needed international STM regime that takes legal, technical, economic and political considerations into account. This could provide the necessary framework and incentives for responsible, safe and sustainable space operations. The international community must continue to work on multilateral solutions to regulate the increase in space traffic and look towards addressing ADR, e.g. with norms for lawful interception with space debris under consideration of related property rights.
Outer space is res communis omnium. Adverse changes to its valuable environment concern the entire community. Sustainability, i.e., preserving the Earth and space environment to meet the needs of those present while preserving it for future generations, must be a fundamental principle underlying all future activities.