Science and Human Rights

The Dire Space Debris Problem

International media and NASA were immediately on China’s case when it became imminent that debris from one of its Long March 5b rockets was set to fall back into the earth’s atmosphere after its core stage started losing height. The world was frantically trying to determine its trajectory given the off-chance that it landed on a populous area. 

The remains of the rocket ultimately crash-landed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Maldives, causing no damage, with the bulk of the rocket having burnt up after its re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. 

The administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson, issued an unusual rebuke after China’s announcement, accusing the country of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” Mr Nelson, the NASA administrator, said in his statement, “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations.” Space debris or space junk consists of defunct human-made objects orbiting in space that no longer serve any purpose. 

This includes nonfunctional or obsolete spacecraft and abandoned launch vehicles, space mission-related debris, fragmentation debris from the breakup of derelict rocket bodies and spacecraft. Other forms of debris include fragments post disintegration, erosion and paint flecks and unburned particles from rocket motors. As of January 2019, more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm, and around 34,000 pieces larger than 10 cm (3.9 in) were estimated to be in orbit around the Earth. 

Space debris poses a unique challenge for space exploration agencies all over the world. Space agencies have dedicated divisions focused on debris tracking and avoidance manoeuvres. 

Concerning Trends 

As per the European Space Agency, space debris has been increasing at an alarming rate. The total area, mass and number of space-related debris has also increased significantly due to the several in-orbit break-ups of spacecraft and disintegration in rocket stages.

This consideration is especially concerning because more debris inevitably increases the chances of a collision in the future. As per predictions, collisions between working satellites and space debris is expected to become the dominant source of space debris generation, much more than explosions. 

Over the last 20 years, 12 accidental ‘fragmentations’ have occurred in space every year and alarmingly, this trend seems to be picking up pace. Fragmentation events are those events where debris is formed due to collisions, explosions, electrical problems 

and even detachment of metallic objects due to the extremely harsh conditions in space that cause severe corrosion. 

There is also the very real risk of debris falling on a densely populated area which could cause catastrophic loss of life and property. It might also spark retaliatory action from the country/countries affected that could in turn lead to a full-fledged war. 

What does the law dictate? 

Technically, there is no law in place that forbids space debris from crashing into the earth. But the law does specify who is liable in case there is damage or injury caused by space debris. The space law advisor for Secure World Foundation, Christopher Johnson states that 2 articles are pertinent to this. The first is the 1967 Outer Space treaty and the other is the 1972 Space Liability Convention. The Liability Convention dictates on whom the onus falls in case space debris causes damage or physical harm. 

However what is interesting to note is that the liability for damage does not reprimand the state whose fault it is, rather it only expects them to pay some sort of compensation for the damage caused by the state. 

Several countries like the U.S., much of Europe, and China have accepted the terms and conditions of the Liability Convention, however, invoking it is not merely a legal decision rather a political one. This means that if rocket parts belonging to China were to cause damage in say the United States then The United States would have to consider the political implications of invoking the liability convention rather than the actual damage caused and if a policy decision rules that the convention not be invoked then it will not be invoked. 

In short, there are a host of reasons why a country would (or wouldn’t) choose to invoke the Liability Convention against an enemy (or ally), but at its core, citing the Liability Convention is a power play. 

Another important factor that needs to be considered is the relative economic position of a country in the world. In essence, if fallen rocket debris causes widespread destruction in rural Somalia, the repercussions and ramifications will be much less severe than those that would be

caused due to a similar crash in downtown manhattan. A poor, underdeveloped nation would be powerless to take any retaliatory legal action and would even receive significantly worse compensations for the damage caused. 


Encouraging signs for the road ahead 

In the last 10 years, 15-30% of objects launched into space (excluding spaceflight related spacecraft) have tried to comply with debris mitigation measures which is an encouraging sign even though 10% of these failed eventually due to active de-orbiting. 

When it comes to rockets, more and more are being sustainably disposed of. Between 40 and 80% of those in a non-compliant low-Earth orbit, this decade attempted to comply with debris mitigation measures. Altogether, 30-70% of naturally non-compliant rockets cleared low-Earth orbit successfully. 

Rockets are also being sustainably disposed of to a large extent. Out of all the rockets launched in the past 10 years, 60-80% adhered to the mitigation measures in place. Efforts are made to ensure that rockets are either in low-Earth orbits or are directed back to the earth's surface so that they either burn up after re-entering into the earth's atmosphere or crash in uninhabited areas. 30% of rockets have safely re-entered in a controlled manner since 2017. 

Satellites that are launched into the geostationary protected region, have been launched after ensuring strict adherence to debris mitigation measures. An estimated 85-100% of these at the end of their life cycles attempted to comply with the relevant safety and safe mitigation measures of which 60-90% succeeded. 

In a geostationary orbit, there is a clear commercial interest for operators to keep their paths free from defunct satellites and debris – to not do so would put their spacecraft, and bottom line, at serious risk. 

Going forward, the adoption of debris mitigation measures provides reasons for optimism, something that was lacking a decade ago. Quick adoption of such technologies will enable our environment to cope with the rapid increase in space traffic and complex space operations planned for the future, 

The space environment needs to be envisaged as a finite and limited natural resource. The continued and sustained creation of space debris will inevitably lead to the dreaded Kessler Syndrome which in layman's terms means that as more and more debris gets deposited in low Earth orbits, the likelihood of collisions will increase which would then lead to a domino effect of sorts whereby even more debris would be generated leading to more collisions. At such a juncture certain orbits around the Earth will become impossible to navigate in and thus become entirely inhospitable. 

References:

1. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-space-junk-and-why-is-it-a-problem.html

2.http://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/The_current_state_of_space_debris

3.https://www.planetary.org/articles/uncontrolled-reentry-rocket-damage-space-lawyers-explain

4.https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debris.html 

5.https://amp.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/26/weve-left-junk-everywhere-why-space-pollu tion-could-be-humanitys-next-big-problem 

6.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/08/science/china-rocket-reentry-falling-long-march-5b.html

Submitted by Devansh Joshi