Space debris is a big problem. There’s a whole lot of it orbiting our planet, fragments and parts and stuff crashing into one another to produce even more, from dangerous large bits to even more dangerous small bits that are harder to detect. It complicates spaceflight and space maintenance work. Significantly, it presents a kind of “tragedy of the commons” scenario because of the difficulty of making international cooperation actually work.
The U.S. is taking it seriously and will do more in 2020. Politico reports: “Agencies will begin rewriting regulations early next year to match the updated government guidelines released last month that limit the creation of garbage in orbit . . .” But experts say this has to include an effort to spread best practices globally, since other privileged nations are going into space and since the private sector will probably generate the predominant space actors within a few decades.
Not everyone agrees with this. Adam Routh takes a somewhat cynical route to space debris governance in November, pointing out that “[d]ecades of stalled efforts have proven multilateral space agreements are simply too difficult to develop” and suggesting that “very limited” agreements, and more bilateral agreements, are better than trying to make a larger structural regime work. He’s right that there have been a lot of stumbles, but it would be a hasty generalization to say that means we shouldn’t keep trying. Bilateral and multilateral approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. He’s also right that “economic interests can be persuasive in international law development,” and so we have to figure out how to incentivize that cooperation.
Stronger international norms are also necessary to deal with actors who are willing to externalize the costs of their military and commercial objectives. Consider India’s anti-satellite technology, which deploys kinetic force to destroy enemy satellites (while India assures the world it has no such enemies presently). “Mission Shakti,” as the technology is called, has “generated hundreds of pieces of debris . . . approximately 50 fragments still remain in orbit. Every one of these fragments constitutes an individual space object over which India retains exclusive jurisdiction and control. These fragments are at great risk of colliding with each other, and possibly other satellites, which would result in the generation of even more debris.” Seems like a very high price for the world to pay for a weapon there are no enemies for. The technology seems to violate at least two current treaties, and the risk of future damage is high.
Condemnations of irresponsibility may feel good, but the presence of actual global working groups, and practical agreements, would go a long way towards convincing people—the public, policymakers—that cooperation works.
It’s no surprise that voices from the military (a bottom-line, efficacy-oriented culture) support large-scale international cooperation on debris: Recently, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, told the media that the United States must work “with other nations and the private sector” to track debris. Currently, about 22,000 pieces are tracked, and that’s clearly not enough, so Helms says “We must partner with other nations and enterprises to achieve mutually beneficial goals.”
Space debris is an extremely negative externality, that should have been contemplated but was not. Those problems nearly always require cooperation to solve, a willingness to forsake short-term advantage-seeking in return for long-term security.