As more countries enter space, there has been a growing focus on tackling the issue of space debris. New Southbound countries have an opportunity to promote international norms in this area, which may help curtail and mitigate potential geopolitical conflicts in the future. A serious example of this occurred in 2021 when Russia destroyed a derelict spacecraft during a test of an anti-satellite missile. In response, the US accused Russia of generating millions of bits of space debris that could threaten “human spaceflight and robotic missions”. The US also said Russia’s actions violated norms laid out in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines (USMU, 2022). Despite not being legally binding, the Guidelines have been signed by 63 countries, which demonstrates that space debris has become a matter of international concern (Hugo, 2021).
Space debris, which is defunct human-made objects orbiting Earth, has become even more of a pressing issue in recent years due to the growth of private space companies such as SpaceX and Amazon, which may place an additional 50,000 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) in the near future (O’Callaghan, n.d.). In 1999, when COPUOS first addressed the issue, space debris “only posed a limited risk” (IADC, 2021). However, both public and private organizations now routinely factor in collision risks with space debris while planning launch missions (USG, 2019).
According to the World Economic Forum, there were approximately 128,934,000 pieces of space debris orbiting Earth as of 2020, which weighed a total of 7 million kilograms (WEF, 2021). However, only around 27,000 pieces of space debris are over 10 centimeters, which is a size large enough to threaten scientific research and commercial development.
Space Debris (Credit: Pixabay)
Traveling at approximately 25,000 km/h, collisions with this type of debris are considered catastrophic (NASA, 2021). Thus, organizations such as NASA track space debris, while the US Department of Defense publicly shares locations through its Space Surveillance Network. When provided in time, this information can help spacecraft operators coordinate emergency avoidance maneuvers (USMU, 2023).
In the case of the International Space Station, objects larger than 10 centimeters warrant avoidance maneuvers if a collision has a probability greater than 1 in 100,000. From 1999 to 2019, the International Space Station made an average of 1.3 avoidance maneuvers per year. However, this number spiked to 3 in 2020, which reflects the growing amount of potentially deadly space debris orbiting Earth. (NASA, 2021).
Therefore, space organizations such as the European Space Agency (ESA) aim to promote preventative measures for space debris because “removal actions starting in 2060 would be 25% less effective” (ESA, n.d.). This is partly due to Kessler syndrome, which states space debris grows exponentially because space debris colliding with other space debris generates even more space debris (Hugo, 2021). As such, international organizations such as COPUOS have been creating norms to limit the generation of new space debris (UNOOSA, 2010). According to the US, COPUOS’ cornerstone “25-year, post-mission, orbital lifetime limit” for spacecraft in LEO has been effective in limiting the generation of space debris (USMU, 2021).
COPUOS specifically addressed end-of-life protocols because 7 out of 10 “debris-creating events” come from accidental explosions of unused energy trapped in derelict satellites (WEF, 2021). Before satellites are removed from orbit, leading space institutions such as NASA, ESA, and JAXA have regulations in place to passivate “space vehicles that remain in orbit after their missions have ended” (Hull, 2022). For instance, the November 2019 update to the US Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices states that before a spacecraft becomes inactive, its stored energy and leftover propellant must be purposely burned off to avoid accidental explosions (NASA, 2021).
Additionally, organizations such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris (IADC) Coordination Committee create technical standards in “mission planning and design” to reduce space debris in protected regions such as LEO (IDAC, 2021). The 2021 version of the IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines has four main focal points, which emphasize reducing “debris released during normal operations,” “on-orbit break-ups,” and “on-orbit collisions” while enhancing “post-mission disposal” (IDAC, 2021).
However, not all space organizations follow the same guidelines. For instance, the ESA has chosen to follow the latest version of ISO 24113 (ESA, 2021). The original version of ISO 24113 was published in 2010 with the original aim of preventing additional space debris by implementing certain regulations in the “design, operation, and disposal of a spacecraft” (Stokes, 2019).
In 2019, ISO 24113 was updated due to the changing nature of the space industry, especially with an emphasis on addressing LEO constellations and small CubeSats. According to ISO, there are already 7,500 satellites operating in LEO, with the number projected to swell to 45,000 in the near future due to increased private sector involvement in space communication (ISO, 2022).
Therefore, the latest ISO 24113 standards aim to guarantee the successful disposal of satellites up to 90% (Stokes, 2019), mainly by ensuring satellites can “either be refueled or removed from orbit [by burning] safely in the upper atmosphere” (ISO, 2022). Looking ahead, the fourth edition of ISO will most likely further address LEO satellite constellations in particular by promoting separation zones, stricter successful disposal requirements, and enhanced trackability of individual satellites (Stokes, 2019).
New Southbound partner countries have an opportunity to contribute to the international effort to reduce space debris. These countries may find it in their best interests to promote standards such as ISO 24113 or the latest IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. Showing an active interest in international norms could inspire further collaboration between countries that share the common values of tackling space debris and ensuring sustainable space development.
New Southbound Partner Countries National-level Space Development
Taiwan Space Agency (TASA)
National Science and Technology Council (NSTC)
3rd phase of the “National Space Technology Long-Term Development Program”
“National Space Technology Long-Term Development Program”
Space Development Act
Beyond-5G Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite Industry Promotion Plan
Academy of Science and Technology (VAST)
Vietnam Space Center (VNSC)
MoU with Airbus
India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Collaboration
"Strategy for the Development and Application of Aerospace Science and Technology by 2030"
India Space Research Organization (ISRO)
Indian National Space Promotion Authorization Center (IN-SPACe)
Small Satellite Launch Vehicle
Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle
Australian Space Agency (Australian Space Agency)
Australian Space Manufacturing Network (ASMN)
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
|Earth Observation from Space Roadmap 2021-2030
Gilmour Space Indigenous Rocket Partnership
Quasar Satellite Technologies Ground Systems Partnership