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date: 12 November 2019

Legal Consequences of the Pollution of Outer Space with Space Debris

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Space debris has grown to be a significant problem for outer space activities. The remnants of human activities in space are very diverse; they can be tiny paint flakes, all sorts of fragments, or entirely intact—but otherwise nonfunctional spacecraft and rocket bodies. The amount of debris is increasing at a growing pace, thus raising the risk of collision with operational satellites. Due to the relative high velocities involved in on-orbit collisions, their consequences are severe; collisions lead to significant damage or the complete destruction of the affected spacecraft. Protective measures and collision avoidance have thus become a major concern for spacecraft operators. The pollution of space with debris must, however, not only be seen as an unfavorable circumstance that accompanies space activities and increases the costs and complexity of outer space activities. Beyond this rather technical perspective, the presence of man-made, nonfunctional objects in space represents a global environmental concern. Similar to the patterns of other environmental problems on Earth, debris generation appears to have surpassed the absorption capacity of the space environment. Studies indicate that the evolution of the space object environment has crossed the tipping point to a runaway situation in which an increasing number of collisions―mostly among debris―leads to an uncontrolled population growth. It is thus in the interest of all mankind to address the debris problem in order to preserve the space environment for future generations.

International space law protects the space environment. Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty obligates States to avoid the harmful contamination of outer space. The provision corresponds to the obligation to protect the environment in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the customary “no harm” rule of general environmental law. These norms are applicable to space debris and establish the duty not to pollute outer space by limiting the generation of debris. They become all the more effective when the principles of sustainable development are taken into account, which infuse considerations of intra- as well as inter-generational justice into international law. In view of the growing debris pollution and its related detrimental effects, it is obvious that questions of liability and responsibility will become increasingly relevant. The Liability Convention offers a remedy for victims having suffered damage caused by space debris. The launching State liability that it establishes is even absolute for damage occurring on the surface of the Earth. The secondary rules of international responsibility law go beyond mere compensation: States can also be held accountable for the environmental pollution event itself, entailing a number of consequential obligations, among them―under certain circumstances―a duty to active debris removal. While international law is, therefore, generally effective in addressing the debris problem, growing use and growing risks necessitate the establishment of a comprehensive traffic management regime for outer space. It would strengthen the rule of law in outer space and ensure the sustainability of space utilization.