Human space exploration helps to address the fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system. In the voyage outside the earth in search of our history, even a minor mistake made would act as a hurdle to humans in exploring space later. ‘Space debris’ is one example of such a mistake.

Space debris also known as space junk, cosmic debris, Space garbage and Space trash consists of natural debris such as meteoroids and objects that are man-made and are no longer useful. It usually includes dead space crafts, solidified liquids discharged from space crafts, abandoned rocket bodies and disintegration of the fragments from space craft. In addition to these, the gloves, cameras, toothbrushes and toolboxes missed by the astronauts in space are also considered space debris. Most of this debris is in Earth’s orbit hence called orbital debris. This research paper aims to analyze and discuss the threats of space debris to future space exploration and the need for the law governing it.


Space debris, Space exploration, Space junk, Orbital debris, International framework, legal vacuum, space policy, NASA.


Humans being the only known intelligent species in this universe are curious to explore not only the parts of the planet they live in but also the universe beyond it. From detaining the father of modern science and astronomy under heresy for supporting the heliocentric theory (A theory in which the sun is believed to be the center of the universe and other planets revolve around it) to naming the new planets after the scientists,  we have gradually but significantly developed over the years in space exploration. The line “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” will be etched in history forever.

Exploration is not just about curiosity, Exploration is necessary for advancements. With the underlying problems in society, some may think space research is a waste of money. However, it is different from what it appears to be. The discontinuation of space research will not have as great an impact as we expect. NASA and ISRO hold only 0.5 and 0.3 percent of the total budget of the USand India which is comparatively very less than other sectors. It is also important to note that the space sector contributes back to society by providing ample employment, business opportunities, technological advancements, etc, thus contributing positively to the economy.

Space exploration could save the living beings on Earth. There exist numerous scientific evidences that suggest an asteroid impact paved the way for the extinction of many species including dinosaurs. Many big comets and asteroids exist in our solar system and most of them are being observed. Yet, there are meager chances of asteroids bashing into our planet anytime. Asteroid-bashing missions have to be carried out to protect our planet Earth from such alien objects. One example of this is NASA’s planetary defense mission – DART (Double asteroid redirection test), which was launched on November 23, 2021, and successfully altered the course of the targeted asteroid.

There are more than 8 billion peopleon Earth and if something disastrous happens to the earth, all the beings will be wiped out. So, colonizing other planets is a ‘backup’ to save humankind. Companies like SpaceX are seriously working towards colonizing Mars. Also, there is an increasing demand for resources because of our huge population and we have already exhausted most of the available resources on earth which has created a great negative impact on the environment. There is very little we could extract from Earth as of now and if we keep digging Earth for more resources, our planet won’t remain our mother Earth anymore. Space mining could be a solution to this. There are abundant precious resources in space and startups like AstroForge plan to mine asteroids instead of the earth, which would mean a huge supply of raw materials for the world without damaging the earth.

Moreover, as enshrined under Article 51-A of the Indian Constitution, it is our duty to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform. In addition, it is also our duty to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavor and achievement.

Along with the benefits of space exploration, there also exists some threats and one of the threats is ‘Space Debris’ – the junk left in space by humans.

Research methodology

Doctrinal method of research has been adopted for the research and secondary sources like online websites, government documents, research papers, educational books, Articles etc were used for the research conducted.

Review of literature

Space debris is not a widely known problem, so there are only few resources available on the topic. Most of the research related to space debris, the measures taken by the space agencies to control it, statistical and scientific information regarding space junk, the way this junk affects the space environment and the damages it has caused in the past was made using the WebPages of various space agencies like NASA and ESA.

A research paper published by the Michigan Journal of International Law discusses the need for an effective liability regime for damage caused by debris in outer space. The author also mentions how the existing laws related to space exploration fail to address the issue of Space debris and reviews certain clauses that are vague.

Also in a research paper titled ‘Why the space-faring companies should be internationally liable for their space objects’ published by William and Mary law review, the author provides insights on how the emergence of new space companies has increased the number of satellite launches per year thus contributing to Space debris.

The interpretation of the term ‘Fault’ mentioned in the Liability Convention has been extensively done by the author in a research paper published by the European Journal of International Law.

A few statistics about the population have been taken from the website of the United Nations organization, and the clauses mentioned are from the official document of the laws.

Threats posed by Space debris

The most serious hazard facing human activities in outer space is the risk of collision with space debris. The first artificial satellite launched into orbit started this accumulation of debris in space. More than 4700 launches have been conducted across the world since Sputnik 1 in 1957. Millions of space debris orbits the Earth at approximately 17,000 mph, which is fast enough for a small chunk to cause injury to persons or even damage space crafts and satellites.

The problem is not confined to the risk posed to space exploration. Among the space junk in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), a portion will lose altitude eventually and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. It is estimated that about 80 tons of space debris re-enter Earth’s atmosphere every year. Due to intense heat caused by friction, the compositional chemicals are released into the atmosphere as the debris burns in the atmosphere. During their return journey through the atmosphere, certain metals and polymers actually consume ozone and undergo chemical reactions that produce nitric oxide, which causes the depletion of the ozone layer.

The Altai region of eastern Siberia is littered with debris from Russian proton rockets launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This includes debris from old fuel tanks containing highly toxic fuel residue, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), a carcinogen which is harmful to plants and animals. Many local residents believe that the UDMH in the fuel tank debris is responsible for the high rate of cancer cases in the area. Twenty-seven people were hospitalized in the Ust-Kansky District of Altai with cancer-related complications in 2007, many of them citing rocket fuel as the suspected case.

Some of the instances in which space debris has caused damages are

  1. Debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier damaged a French satellite in 1996
  2. An old inoperative Russian spacecraft collided with a working U.S. Iridium commercial satellite and destroyed it on Feb 10, 2009. More than 2300 pieces of large, trackable debris and many smaller pieces of debris were added to the space junk inventory as a result of the collision.
  3. Over 3500 large trackable pieces of debris and many smaller pieces of debris have been added to the debris problem as a result of China’s 2007 anti-satellite test using a missile to destroy an old weather satellite.
  4. In May 2021, astronauts found that space debris had damaged a robotic arm of the ISS during an inspection.  It has left a hole about the size of 0.5 centimetres (0.2 inches) in the arm, but fortunately, it still works.
  5. A piece of debris from a Russian rocket launched in 1996 collided with a Chinese military satellite named Yunhai-1 (02) developed by the Shangai Academy of Spaceflight on March 18, 2022.

The Hubble space telescope had been visited and repaired by the astronauts five times to date and each time, they find tiny craters left by collisions with small pieces of debris on the solar panels.

As of right now, NASA and the Department of Defense Space Surveillance Network are tracking about twenty thousand pieces of debris with the help of radars and other telescopes, but the most dangerous debris is the millions of pieces that are too small to be noticed and tracked. One of the factors contributing to the increase in space debris is the technological development in space industries which enables launching numerous satellites into the Earth’s orbit.

Another major concern about space debris is the time it takes for orbital decay. Debris that are in orbit at an altitude of 800 kilometers may exist there for centuries and above 1000 kilometers the debris will be circling the Earth for a thousand years or more.

The Kessler syndrome:

The Kessler syndrome is a theory propounded by NASA scientist Donald J Kessler in 1978. He was the retired head of NASA’s orbital debris programme. This theory proposes it is possible that too much space junk could cause a chain reaction where more and more objects collide and produce new space junk until Earth’s orbit becomes unusable – a domino effect. He has also stated that “The longer you wait to do this the more expensive it is going to be. Given the economy, we’ll probably end up putting it off, but that’s really not wise. This scenario of increasing space debris will play out even if we don’t put anything else in orbit”

In order to ensure a good scope for future space exploration, it is important to prevent Kessler’s theory from coming true by taking appropriate measures.

Analysis of the Legal Status of Space debris

Like any other laws, laws pertaining to space are also based on the principle of international cooperation and equality.

NASA was the first organization to make an attempt to tackle the problem with its Orbital Debris Mitigation Policy and Guidelines in the 1990s. The U.S National space policy of 2006 and 2010 directs agencies and departments to implement the U.S Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices. It aims to

  1. Control the debris released during normal operations
  2. Minimizing debris generated by accidental explosions
  3. Selection of safe flight profile and operational configuration
  4. Post Mission disposal of space structures

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), an intergovernmental forum established the first consensus on international debris mitigation guidelines in 2002. The members of the IADC are ASI, CNES, CNSA, CSA, DLR, ESA, ISRO, JAXA, KARI, NASA, ROSCOSMOS, SSAU and UKSA.

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) was established by the General Assembly in 1959 with the goal of regulating space exploration and utilization for peace, security, and economic development for the human race. The Legal subcommittee is also discussing the national and international legal aspects of space debris mitigation measures in addition to scientific research. It has drafted five important treaties regulating space activities and preserving the environment in outer space.

  1. The outer space treaty, 1967
  2. Rescue Agreement, 1968
  3. The liability convention,1972
  4. The Registration Convention, 1976
  5. The Moon Agreement, 1979

Yet, no law addresses the issue of space debris and even the term ‘Orbital debris’ is completely absent from all international space laws. In its Article III, the Liability Convention of 1972 provides for fault-based liability in the case of damage in outer space. It states “In the event of damage being caused elsewhere than on the surface of the earth to a space object of one launching State or to persons or property on board such space object by a space object of another launching State, the latter shall be liable only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible”.

The application of this article, however, has two problems. Firstly, the Liability Convention does not define the term ‘Space object’, so it is unclear whether it includes Space debris. On the other hand, the Convention requires proof of state ‘fault’ in order for liability to arise, but it does not define this notoriously ambiguous term.

Although the outer space treaty is called the ‘Magna Carta’ of space law, its clauses remain too general to address the complex problem of space debris with confidence.  There are three Articles in the Outer Space Treaty that may help in addressing concerns about orbital debris

Article VI – “States parties to this convention shall bear international responsibility for national actions in outer space”

Article VII – “Each State party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space…and each state party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State party”

Article IX – “A State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment.”

But as mentioned above, these articles are too general to address this complex issue. Though there is a lack of an International framework for governing space debris, many countries try to work out the problem of space debris through various activities. For example, China has launched a robot prototype for low-Earth orbit called NEO-01. It consists of a large net which helps to collect the Space debris left over from other spacecraft. An electric propulsion system will burn the debris after it captures the debris. The Japanese have also come up with an experiment named Kounotori using an innovative technique to remove space debris that is orbiting the Earth.

Existence of a legal vacuum

A good legal system must keep pace with the changes that occur in society. Regular evaluation and amendments in the legal system are essential to make laws effective and operational. If there are some areas that remain untouched or not sufficiently covered by law, it is called a legal void or legal gap or legal vacuum. Legal vacuums are significant because, if laws are not clear, they can lead to confusion, inconsistency, and uncertainty in application of justice. Legal gaps also make it difficult for the government, other organizations and businesses to carry out their function without having proper regulations. A legal vacuum can arise in a variety of situations. Some of the reasons for legal vacuums are social changes, technological advancements, conflict between the existing legislations and advent of novel problems. To fill this void space, the law makers have to come up with new laws or amend the existing laws to an extent that resolves the pertaining issues. The introduction of a new law or the amendment to the existing law should be made after conducting research and consulting with the experts in the field. Currently there is a legal gap in space laws dealing with space debris, which is a global challenge. To seal this gap, it is important to establish a consensus international framework that clears all the confusions and problems associated with space debris.

Need for an international framework for space debris

  1. Due to the lack of a separate framework for space debris, determining liability and responsibility for debris collisions is difficult. To address concerns about space debris, including responsibility for cleanup, prevention of proliferation of debris and compensation for damages, an international framework is necessary which would be binding on all.
  • Satellites and space activities are increasing, making it essential to ensure that outer space is sustainable in the long term. It would be possible to address issues like orbital congestion, debris mitigation measures, and sustainable space practices through a common international framework. It would also prevent the overcrowding of orbits and ensure that space resources are used responsibly.
  • Different countries follow different practices in space debris management. Coordinating and harmonizing approaches to the management of space debris would be easier with a common framework across all countries.
  • A common framework would also promote international cooperation by enabling the countries to collaborate with one another, further facilitating data exchange, information sharing, etc that could help in effective removal of space debris.


If an international consensus framework that is legally binding is made to deal with the problem of space debris, it must

  1. In the first place, provide a proper definition of the term ‘Space debris’ and its classification depending on its size, whereabouts and potential risks.
  2. Promote international collaboration, transparency, and data sharing in order to increase the accuracy of tracking the space debris and the efficacy of mitigation efforts.
  3. Establish an appropriate compensation mechanism for the damage caused by space debris in outer space.
  4. Include guidelines and regulations for spacecraft design and operations to minimize the creation of new debris
  5. Frame regulations restricting deliberate destroying of defunct satellites
  6. Make collision avoidance measures a priority and provide instructions on how to implement them.
  7. Address the environmental degradation by space debris, its related effects and the guidelines to prevent such deterioration.
  8. Promote the development of innovative solutions to debris removal and address the need for active debris removal technologies.
  9. Set guidelines for the safe disposal of upper stages of rockets and satellites when they reach their expiration.


This research paper examined the issue of space debris and emphasized the need for a separate international framework. A growing debris cloud poses severe risks to satellites, human safety, and space activities. While existing initiatives such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) and guidelines from organizations such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) have made significant progress, they fall short of providing a comprehensive and enforceable solution. As space debris continues to grow, it creates a threat to the future exploration of the universe. Space sustainability can be promoted, risks can be mitigated, and long-term viability of space activities can be assured by establishing a separate international framework. It is our collective responsibility as a society to act swiftly and decisively to secure the future of space exploration.


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Tamilnadu Dr.Ambedkar law University, Chennai.