edited by Paulina Lucio Maymon

April Greene Apking, in the Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy, writes, “[w]e must ensure that our presence [in space] does not defile what remains one of the few accessible pristine areas.” Considering the endless territorial canvas of space, it seems simultaneously idealistic and unrealistic to assume the responsibility of space maintenance and preservation. But the question remains: has humanity overstayed its welcome in space?

Our interest in space started after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I more than 50 years ago, marking the beginning of our use of space for political, military, technological, and scientific endeavors. We have come far since then, having launched hundreds of satellites, space probes, telescopes, moon missions, and planetary landers. Could space provide us with a sustainable future not possible with the resources available exclusively on Earth? Understanding environmentalism, which focuses on the preservation, restoration, and improvement of the natural environment within the present framework, is critical to answering this question. According to Ryder W. Miller, space environmentalism’s goals include the declaration of “celestial bodies [as] pristine wildernesses that need to be protected rather than frontiers to conquer,” prohibition of “terraforming of celestial bodies,” and “safeguarding against the introduction of non-terrestrial life to and from celestial bodies.” My goal in this paper is to explore the severity of the space environmentalism problem and suggest solutions to help clean up and preserve the increasingly cluttered final frontier.

Why Space Junk is a Problem

NASA has been studying debris hazards to (and caused by) spacecraft for over a decade, and there is a host of international organizations involved with the dense thicket of regulations governing environmental issues in outer space. Of particular concern is debris (more colloquially known as “space junk”): not only meteorites and space dust, but also fragments of satellites that break up in orbit, leaving smaller but vastly more shards of what amounts to orbiting shrapnel.

The Scope of the Space Junk Dilemma

Venturing into space is inherently risky, and orbital debris is just one of many hazards that a space traveler faces. But the debris hazard is unique in being a product of our environmental negligence. After just forty years in space, we have already seriously polluted the final frontier. Valuable orbits are peppered with debris that threatens the operation of satellites and the lives of astronauts alike. There is now so much debris in orbit as a result of space activity such as explosions in fuel tanks and batteries, and from the high-velocity impacts between objects, that the aptly coined “space junk” problem is one that has become critical and needs to be addressed immediately. In fact, even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities—a large number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks. NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, Nicholas Johnson, concluded from this that “the greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris”. This threat also extends out to the International Space Station (ISS), which has seen its fair share of close calls in recent years. In March of 2012, a chunk of a defunct military communications satellite narrowly missed the ISS by about 7.5 miles. The danger of that collision was so imminent that the crew on board had already prepared to evacuate the Station upon impact. This is a problem that is occurring more frequently, since any debris larger than a baseball poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the ISS; with hundreds of thousands of pieces of small debris flying around in space near the Space Station, the probability of an accident occurring remains terrifyingly high.

Even though the ISS has dodged many close shaves thus far, many other space establishments have not been so lucky. As far back as the ’90s, space debris has been causing billions of dollars of damages. In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier. On February 10, 2009, a defunct Russian communications satellite called Cosmos 2251 collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium communications satellite some 500 miles above the Earth. However, the danger of the collision did not stop with the impact. The Cosmos 2251 collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk. In 2007, China exacerbated the problem when it conducted an anti-satellite weapon test that destroyed a decommissioned weather satellite and created 150,000 additional pieces of orbital debris, many of which were larger than 1 cm across.

The longer-term effects of space debris collisions are staggering. Since the beginning of the Space Age, thousands of satellites have been placed in Earth’s orbit by various nations. Because many of these satellites are in orbits that cross one another, there is a finite probability of collisions between them. Satellite collisions produce several fragments, some of which may be capable of fragmenting another satellite upon collision, creating even more fragments. The result over time will be an exponential increase in the number of orbiting objects, creating a belt of debris around the Earth. This snowballing effect is known as the “Kessler Syndrome.” Eventually, these never-ending collisions stand to create a no-go zone for spacecraft within Earth’s low orbit.

What systems have already been put in place to monitor and potentially come up with a solution to the space junk problem? While NASA, for example, has been diligent in its efforts to track debris in space, surveillance is not sufficient for protecting the environmental gains we have made in outer space.

How We Can Save the Last Frontier

The answer lies in “remediation”: removing just five large objects per year, for example, could prevent a chain reaction. If governments attempt to clean up this mess themselves, the cost could run into the trillions. Intergovernmental organizations and space agencies alike are discussing the merits of active removal, which would see new spacecraft launched specifically to take other, redundant satellites out of orbit. Other options being discussed include the use of nets, harpoons, tethers, ion thrusters and lasers, all of which would be costly to build and tedious to implement. Even so, the international community needs to sort through the myriad legal issues that would currently frustrate attempts to clean up space.

At the moment, international law permits only the launching nation or agency to come into contact with a specific object in orbit, something that would prevent, for example, commercial debris-removal activities. The framework for this international law began with the Outer Space Treaty, which was established in 1967. The treaty involves 96 state parties that are working to “limit activities on the Moon and other celestial bodies exclusively to those for peaceful purposes and forbids the development of military bases, installations, fortifications or weapons testing of any kind on any celestial body.” Therefore, it would be beneficial for a large international agency such as the United Nations to create an international space union that could coordinate all of the debris-removal activity and create a framework for equitable use of orbits among all countries engaged in space exploration. Another critical weakness in the international law on space debris lies in the fact that existing space law is related to the use of space and not to debris regulation itself. The rules within the Outer Space Treaty are helpful in facilitating boundaries in space use, but they do not directly apply to the space debris issue. Until the legal issues are sorted out, all proposed solutions will remain hypothetical, or at best, limited to a small number of debris pieces. In the meantime, the threat continues to grow. Government regulations covering orbital debris are still rudimentary. For now, the federal agencies that have authority over commercial launches are waiting to see if the private sector can deal with the problem on its own.

Another obstacle involves locating and tracking the debris. Better tracking data would be required to maximize the effectiveness of debris removal. Since much of that data is classified, only a trusted intermediary could get American and Russian defense officials, for example, to work together. Here, too, the largest obstacle is legal. While maritime law encourages the cleanup of abandoned vessels as hazards to navigation, space law discourages debris remediation by failing to recognize debris as abandoned property, and making it difficult to transfer ownership of, and liability for, objects in space–even junk. By adapting maritime precedents, space law could make orbital debris removal feasible, once the right economic incentives are in place.

The first commitment to going beyond evaluating theoretical approaches has come from the Swiss research institute École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. In 2012, its scientists came up with the idea for something called CleanSpace One, a one-off spacecraft with grabbing capabilities that they intend to test by guiding it to recover one of the institute’s own satellites. The design is inspired by the way sea anemones wrap their tentacles around their prey; it will have a folding conical net that will grab onto and gulp in space garbage. Then, the idea is to have the spacecraft de-orbit back to Earth, where both the catcher spacecraft and the debris will burn up upon their re-entry into Earth’s orbit. Another idea being looked into by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a recycling approach. One such proposal is the launch of a robotic repair spacecraft called “Phoenix” to salvage and reuse components in order to rebuild decommissioned satellites. Rather than cleaning up the debris, the aim would be to reduce the need for new satellites to be placed into orbit by refueling, repairing, upgrading and otherwise servicing satellites to extend their lifespan. However, high tech projects like these take years to commission, and they are likely far too costly to fully implement.

A few economic and policy-driven approaches have also been considered in conjunction with high tech efforts. First, NASA and other space agencies have put in place the “25-Year Rule” stating that any entity that sends a satellite or other object into space needs to plan to bring it back down to Earth within 25 years. This can be done via post-mission disposal, where satellites and other objects are built with the capability of de-orbiting themselves after a set amount of time. This is a good step to take, but its effectiveness is limited in scope. NASA estimates that only half of the world’s space missions currently plan to adhere to the 25-year limit. This is mostly due to the financial constraints of fuel costs to lower the space object back into orbit at the end of a mission. In addition, some notable experts are convinced that the rule, while noble, would have very little if any impact: the collision frequency of space junk has become so high that it is not possible to bring objects back into orbit at the same pace as the build-up of space junk.

Our Responsibility to Advance Environmentalism in Space

In the end, participation in cleaning up space junk is largely voluntary; international guidelines for debris mitigation are just that, guidelines. If international governing bodies or large agencies such as NASA can create incentives for active space-traveling nations to stop launching satellites and other objects into space and to clean up after a mission, then perhaps the Kessler Syndrome and space pollution problem would not be so great a concern. It is tough to pinpoint exactly how to incentivize a group of scientists whose only goal is to continue to explore the great outer frontier, but if we look at it like an economic problem, perhaps we will find some practical answers. One solution that has been thrown around by enthusiastic environmentalists is a fee or tax on orbital launches. In order for this to be successful, the tax would have to be heavy enough to deter both companies and countries from overpopulating space with objects. The revenue from these taxes could also be used to fund space cleaning efforts or tech projects like Phoenix or CleanSpace One. Taxation brings with it a new slate of legal challenges and bargaining headaches. Even as it is not meant to be a complete and flawless solution, this kind of approach is a good basis on which to help drive the space environmentalism movement.

At present, there are a few things that can be done to help instigate a space-cleaning movement. We need to increase the visibility of the space debris problem within the scientific community and civil society in general through educational exposure or increased media coverage. It is also necessary to clarify the obligations of governments with respect to space debris and to ensure that governments make legislative and programmatic changes, at the national level, to implement said legal obligations. This would require signatory countries, of both pre-existing and future agreements, to make certain substantive commitments for limiting space debris and pay fines to governing space entities, such as NASA, if any nation is deemed liable or at fault. In addition, requiring parties to adopt domestic space management procedures and accountability measures to match international standards and guidelines is essential. However, we also need to establish systems for international cooperation through which governments, space organizations, and other actors can share knowledge and ideas and work together to reduce space pollution and the dangers now posed by existing pollution.

It is imperative that we solve the orbital debris problem. But how we solve this problem will offer valuable lessons for all environmental policymaking. Space is a fragile frontier. A balance needs to be struck between the increasingly accessible realm of space travel and the protection of the space environment. Sustainable space exploration can be achieved with a combination of stronger international space governing bodies and the development of innovative technologies. It is not hard to envision space as a natural extension of Earth’s environment. Therefore, humanity needs to work together to protect the environment that we may one day travel to and inhabit.


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Jonathan Hua

Jonathan Hua

Jonathan L. Hua (MBA ’17) is a Taiwanese American who grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, also spending time living in both Tokyo and Texas, where he graduated from Rice University with a B.A. in history in 2014. At The Johnson School of Management, he is a Social Media Ambassador and a writer for the Cornell Business Journal and RICE Magazine. As an entrepreneur, Jonathan is the Co-founder of Project UNICiD, an online virtual fitting room startup in development, and is an advisory board member at DaStrong Corp., a startup in the electronics cooling industry. In his free time, Jonathan enjoys playing trumpet with his jazz quintet, Scatastrophe, and traveling the world on culinary adventures.
Jonathan Hua

Written by Jonathan Hua

Jonathan L. Hua (MBA ’17) is a Taiwanese American who grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, also spending time living in both Tokyo and Texas, where he graduated from Rice University with a B.A. in history in 2014. At The Johnson School of Management, he is a Social Media Ambassador and...
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