Space debris threatens satellites.

Space Debris Is Increasing, But Governments Can’t Agree How To Stop It

Image courtesy of (pdf) the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Space debris is threatening mankind’s ability to launch objects into orbit and beyond – but no one agrees on how to prevent it.

As we’ve written about before, the Earth is surrounded by more than 500,000 pieces of space debris, threatening satellites and spacecraft:

Space debris.
Photo courtesy of NASA via spaceref.com (PDF). Compiled by Curiousmatic.

But the international space community isn’t doing enough to mitigate that threat, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IASDC) stated in a 2013 report (pdf), and the amount of debris is increasing.

Sure, there are lots of high-tech concepts for combating space debris being considered, such as a “laser broom,” controlled de-orbit, and DARPA’s plan to reassemble broken satellites.

In the near future, better tracking capabilities will also help mitigate the danger.

However, there are now more than 50 nations involved in a space exploration. That number is only set to increase, as is the number of satellites and outgoing spacecraft.

It seems logical that there would be a consensus on how to minimize the risk from space debris – especially considering the worst-case collision cascade scenario, which would create a nearly impenetrable barrier around Earth.

But even on this literally global issue, international cooperation is difficult to solidify.

The geopolitics of space

There is, of course, the IASDC, which is staffed by members from 12 governmental space agencies, including the European Space Agency, the U.S., Russia, and China.

It issued recommended guidelines (pdf) in 2007, which were adopted by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space.

However, these guidelines are voluntary, and there is no international treaty mandating space debris mitigation.

This is where things get complicated

The European Union is proposing a “International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities,” intended among other things to minimize space debris.

It’s supported by several space-faring nations, but notably not by the U.S., which fears that parts of the treaty restricts its ability to defend itself and allies in space.

An important part of American military space policy is the ability to deny enemies access to space, which the treaty could curtail.

India, on its part, wants the treaty to be legally binding, which it currently wouldn’t be.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have proposed their own version, called the “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” (PPWT).

While mainly a treaty to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space, the two nations fear that if they signed the EU code of conduct it would make their own treaty obsolete.

Currently, they are the only nations to support the PPWT, which would be a legally binding treaty.

So despite the consensus of their space agencies, governments around the world are still prioritizing national policies over international agreement.

And with tensions creating a rift in U.S.-Russia space relations, prospects for future agreements seem to dim – while space debris continues to threaten the future of spaceflight.

Ole Skaar