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.