Cleaning up the Orbit

As engagement in space increases, the US can become a leader by addressing orbital debris through compliance.

This essay won the Stimson Center’s “Build a Better US Foreign Policy” student competition. The competition invited students to share creative ideas for improving US foreign policy to draw new and innovative talent into the policy space and provide avenues for young thinkers to engage with leading foreign policy institutions.

As humanity’s presence in space expands, the growing problem of orbital debris poses significant risks to satellites, space stations, and other space-based assets. This issue presents an opportunity for the United States to engage with the international community, demonstrate leadership, and collaborate on a globally significant challenge. Central to this endeavor is the Outer Space Treaty.

The Outer Space Treaty is the cornerstone of international space law and outlines the key principles for peaceful space exploration, asserting that outer space is free for exploration and use by all nations, forbidding the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space, and declaring that space activities must be conducted for the benefit of all countries. Despite these broad provisions, the treaty does not address the contemporary issue of orbital debris. Therefore, the greatest step the United States could take to address orbital debris would be to amend the Outer Space Treaty to include provisions for tracking and managing debris, implementing penalties for violations, and creating requirements to purchase deorbit bonds.

The recent increase in space missions and military anti-satellite weapons tests has led to a proliferation of orbital debris, which includes defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, and spacecraft fragments. The refuse poses an acute danger of high-speed collisions with operational satellites and spacecraft, which can result in significant damage or catastrophic failure. These hazards were recently highlighted by the on-orbit damage to a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and required debris avoidance maneuvers conducted by the International Space Station because of satellite fragments. The problem only expands as the accumulation of debris can trigger a cascading effect known as the Kessler Syndrome, where collisions generate more debris, increasing the likelihood of further collisions. Addressing the issue of orbital debris is vital for protecting valuable space-based assets and ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities.

MANAGING THE DEBRIS

The United States has taken some initial steps to address orbital debris through initiatives and agreements such as the National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan and the Artemis Accords. The Implementation Plan directs a comprehensive approach to mitigating and remediating space debris, involving research, technology development, policy, and regulation. The Artemis Accords outlines principles for the safe and sustainable exploration and utilization of outer space, including the requirement for participating nations to adopt measures to mitigate space debris. However, these efforts are insufficient. For example, the implementation plan only applies to the United States, limiting its impact on the broader international community.

The US needs to amend the Outer Space Treaty because it does not address the contemporary issue of orbital debris.

The Artemis Accords have been primarily dictated by Washington, raising concerns about the lack of a broader international consensus. Some nations see the Artemis Accords as an attempt by the United States to establish rules unilaterally rather than through a genuinely multilateral process. Moreover, key spacefaring nations like Germany, Russia, and China have expressed reservations about US-led lunar initiatives, further limiting the potential for unified action on orbital debris.

The Artemis Accords also does not include any penalties for violations, meaning it lacks the teeth necessary to ensure compliance and effective enforcement. The absence of a multilateral approach, as well as the reliance on voluntary participation in debris mitigation efforts, renders the current United States strategy insufficient to tackle the rapidly increasing problem of space debris.

DEORBIT BONDS

Orbital debris is a global issue, necessitating international cooperation for effective resolution. This presents an opportunity for the United States to lead on orbital debris management policy by engaging other spacefaring nations through the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS). This venue provides an ideal platform for the development of joint strategies and initiatives, which the United States should utilize to strengthen its relationships with other countries to foster trust and collaboration and promote responsible behavior in space. This would have the benefit of facilitating the development of shared norms in space and garnering a larger pool of investment in debris mitigation and removal efforts.

Within this setting, the United States should build upon the existing Outer Space Treaty, which already includes 113 signatory countries, by proposing the creation of a new multilateral amendment specifically addressing space debris. This amendment should include provisions outlining standardized best practices for satellite design, end-of-life disposal, and debris mitigation. A key aspect of this amendment would involve requiring any party launching objects into space to have a deorbit plan as part of their primary mission. This would ensure that every satellite or spacecraft has a designated end of life disposal strategy, minimizing the chances of it becoming a long-term source of debris.

Furthermore, mandating every operator to purchase a deorbit bond would provide a financial guarantee to cover the cost of deorbiting their spacecraft if they are unable to fulfill their deorbit obligations. Given its expertise and mandate in the field of outer space affairs, these deorbit bonds would be managed under the supervision of UNCOPUOS’ secretariat, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

Deorbit bonds would be issued by private corporations or national entities that obtain certification from UNOOSA, with UNOOSA acting as the bond’s beneficiary. Because the risk accepted by the bond issuers is so high, they would have the option to work with other issuers and spread the risk between entities. The bond premiums would be based on a tiered pricing structure, taking into account factors such as prior loss/past performance, reputational risk, redundancy, mission specifics, safety margins, capacity to affect another spacecraft, and history of the operator’s country on policing reckless space activity. This structure would ensure the bond pricing reflects the risk associated with each operator and encourages adherence to best practices in space operations.

The precedent for financial instruments managed through the UN system stretches back to its early years. One example from 1949 is the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East where their financial management of partner countries’ funds included resource mobilization and fund allocation. More recently, the UN Green Climate Fund provides mechanisms to facilitate the transfer of financial resources from developed countries to developing ones to support climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. Similarly, the deorbit bond system would serve as a mechanism to pool resources from spacefaring entities, ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities.

ENCOURAGING COMPLIANCE

To ensure compliance with the provisions of this proposed amendment, a combination of measures would need to be implemented. First, participatory nations would need to agree on guidelines for UNOOSA to follow. Second, incentives for adhering to the agreement should be created. These incentives would include access to shared space situational awareness data, participation in joint research and development projects, and preferential treatment in the allocation of orbital slots in frequency bands.

Third, penalties to encourage compliance while maintaining the cooperative spirit of the agreement should be imposed. These may include fines, restrictions to access of shared resources and data, or limitations on future space launches. Last, once an operator successfully completes their deorbit requirements, they would be eligible for a partial refund of their bond premium. This refund system would act as a positive reinforcement mechanism, motivating operators to fulfill their obligations. After the non-reimbursable portion of premiums reaches an established threshold, UNOOSA would use surplus funds to support the removal of uncontrolled debris from orbit, further reducing the risks associated with orbital debris. Through the utilization of a bond system, the financial burden for debris removal would be placed on the entities generating the debris, creating an incentive for responsible behavior and sustainable space operations.

By proactively addressing orbital debris management, the United States can provide a mutually beneficial common ground with which to engage countries, including those with which the United States has strained diplomatic ties. As a result, other nations would be encouraged to invest in efforts to safeguard valuable space-based assets. If it takes a leading role in this opportunity, the United States can create a lasting, positive impact on the future of space exploration.

James Maxcy is a Mechanical Engineering student at Arizona State University. He is currently a Project Manager at a nonprofit that provides emergency air transportation to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. After graduating, James aspires to work in business development at an aerospace company and/or contribute to US national space and aviation policymaking.