Late last week a US Judge approved the UK Government’s successful bid to take a 45% equity stake in distressed commercial satellite operator, OneWeb. It is the latest move in the UK’s bid to capture a 10% share of the global space sector by 2030. This particular move however, calls to attention a key issue for the sustainability of the sector going forwards: who will take responsibility for orbital debris? Without re-thinking the current international law on liability for collisions in space, we risk allowing another great natural resource to fall to the tragedy of the commons.

Satellites to provide broadband

OneWeb, a London-based company with operations on both sides of the Atlantic, had, before its collapse, successfully launched 74 of a planned 648 satellites that would beam broadband internet to the ground from low Earth orbit. The investment presents a number of opportunities for the UK, including supporting its commitment to the roll out of broadband, re-patriating manufacturing jobs and the potential to piggyback a secure navigation signal to fill the void left by the EU’s Galileo program post-Brexit.

Dangers to satellites and spacecraft

OneWeb has been an advocate of the Responsible Space initiative which seeks to promote sustainable space practices. According to NASA’s best estimate, there are currently around 8,000 tons of human-made objects in orbit around the Earth that are no longer of any use. Much of this debris is in the same low Earth orbit (less than 2,000km above Earth) as OneWeb’s constellation.

NASA actively tracks 23,000 pieces of orbital debris with a diameter greater than 10cm and estimates that there are more than 100 million objects with a diameter over 1mm. Travelling at speeds of up to 28,800kmh in low Earth orbit, these tiny fragments of metal, paint and the odd glove lost during an ISS space-walk, present a serious danger to spacecraft. While NASA’s space shuttle program was still active, it would orbit the Earth backwards to protect the crew compartment at the front of the shuttle and would regularly need replacement windows after impacts with tiny objects.

Satellite explosions and collisions

The principal source of larger orbital debris is the explosion or collision of satellites. Significant debris was created by the accidental collision of US commercial satellite Iridium-33 with defunct Russian military satellite Cosmos-2251 in 2009 and the intentional destruction of Chinese weather satellite Fengyun-1C during an anti-satellite weapons test in 2007. Together, the debris from these three satellites make up one-third of all space junk that NASA tracks.

Launch state is liable

The current legal position is set out in the widely-ratified 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. The Convention, a fully-fledged creature of international law, only allows states to invoke or be liable under its provisions and neglects to define the concept of “fault” despite only imposing liability for losses in orbit on a launch state where “the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible.” This led many states to require significant indemnities from private operators they licensed, and raised political challenges to recovery of losses suffered by private industry. To date, the Convention has only been invoked once, in 1978, in relation to a nuclear-powered Russian military satellite (Cosmos-954) that crashed in northern Canada.

Technical solutions

There are a number of technical solutions being tested to reduce the amount of space junk in orbit, including spacecraft armed with harpoons, nets, deployable sails and whips all designed to capture debris or knock it towards Earth to burn up on re-entry. Such technical solutions treat the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.

Future law and regulation

The nascent state of the commercial space economy provides an opportunity to enshrine prevention in law. A new treaty could grant rights to private commercial operators to seek redress for damage caused to their satellites or spacecraft in exchange for imposing responsibilities to minimise, track and dispose of debris and importantly, to bear liability for the damage caused to others by their activities. Usable orbits are a common good and some, such as higher geostationary orbits, are finite. The world knows the tragedy of allowing exploitation of common resources without effective regulation – we need only look at the oceans, the rainforests or the ozone layer. This is not an opportunity that should be missed.