Industrial commitments on legal aspects of active debris removal

Among the several issues related to the space activities, the one concerning the space debris removal has now become one of the most urgent to address: due to the development that the space sector is currently living, the number of space objects orbiting around our planet is likely to increase and threaten not only the terrestrial environment, but also the safety of the present and future space activities. The juridical scenario is still incomplete, lacking for instance a definition of the term “space object”. Furthermore, there are no clear prohibitions regarding debris and space pollution, meaning that private companies do not have to respect any environmental or juridical binding limit while carrying on their space missions.

Nevertheless, there are various initiatives arising from the industrial sector tackling the space pollution issue: the high number of space debris in fact, might represent a tough hurdle for the development of the private space projects by making numerous orbits inaccessible. The present work analyses the industrial progresses in this field in along with the rules and the future needs of the juridical community.

Space Debris Mitigation

A wide access for everyone to space could lead to a significant increase of space debris, making outer space activities less safe than they are at the current state: this critical scenario would also introduce additional safety-related costs and eventually augment general costs and eventually undermining space project developments. This factor would deter actors from investing, lead to a decrease of the industrial commitment in this field and eventually mortify all of the scientific, technological and humanitarian goals related to space.

The SDM market is living an expansion phase: the increase rate involves 3 438 satellites within a 9 years period (2016-2025) that will be accessible to European suppliers (343 satellites per year). The accessible market will continue to grow, covering the 87% of the total market by 2021 (1790 satellites) and up to 93% of it from 2021 on (1648 satellites).

The most promising area within the SDM Market is that of the EOL disposal manoeuvre solutions (300 million euros), in along with the Design for Demise area (142 million euros), and the passivation area (18 million euros). The approximate value of the Design for Demise swings around 450 million euros up to 2025, because they would also be part of commercial missions (such as large constellations). In consideration of this scenario, it would be appropriate to trigger institutional investments so to decrease the cost impact of SDM and Design for Demise Solutions. Passivation technologies will also gain a significant role in the market, in particular within the GEO market segment; for this reason it would be adequate to promote new forms of communalities regarding technologies.

The European demand for satellites is mainly governmental and it is diffused among several satellite operators. ESA, the European Union and France will administer more than fifteen satellites each. The space debris mitigation issue has been taken into account by national space laws, however there is still a very limited technology close to market worldwide, leading this to an urgent need and a high demand for SDM commercial compliant solutions. With regard to the development of new uncontrolled re-entry systems, in Europe passive deorbit devices are already close to market or even implemented in-orbit. Space debris mitigation represents a highly promising market, nonetheless, due to the high market demand, there is the need to translate the European knowledge into industrial products. In addition to this, also passivation technologies have a high market potential in which European solutions play a leading role and developments are needed.

In order to support future removal missions, Design projects for removal are under study in Europe and tools to calculate the end of life reliability of satellites are key to support and implement the space debris mitigation plans. The following tools and features are crucial to develop a system able to predict the end of life of satellites: remaining life-time, remaining reliability, collision risks, break-up, demise ability and re-entry needs to be enhanced, harmonized and standardized. A European shared database including the test results of the deorbit and re-entry behaviour is required and it shall be at the disposal of the European entities such as Industry, Agencies and research centres.

Maintaining the SDM framework constantly up to date is also essential: the current scenario regarding the Space Debris Mitigation shall be reviewed in order to identify any possible adaptation to the future large constellations including CubeSats, nanosats, microsats and minisats. This process requires a strong participation where European Member States and European entities interact together in order to enhance the existing industrial initiatives and to promote more binding solutions from a legal perspectives.

Controlled re-entry support systems

The optimization of controlled-re-entry systems presents a wide variety of opportunities, also for other applications which can broad the potential of the market: this kind of systems is necessary for medium and large missions, in particular optical ones. However, the existing building blocks don’t have already an acceptable readiness level in order to reach the goal, therefore an increase of the existing technology shall be promoted, so that a wider range of their application becomes feasible.

Deorbiting technologies within the European Market

The European space sector has developed key knowledge and technical competences in the areas of SDM so far: this effort might result in a promising and strong potential to open new markets for the European industry at integrator and supplier level.

A critical hurdle concerning space debris mitigation is the present difference between the numerous efforts being made by European nations to adopt legal measures, enforce the SDM requirements, develop cutting-edge competences and the lack of close to market technology; this being the main reason why the SDM sector seems to be far from having practical solutions able to revolutionize the industrial field. It is therefore necessary to highlight worldwide, in papers and legal documents, the urgency to fill this gap between technical knowledge and the inability to make solutions quickly reach the market and become operative.

The European includes several promising opportunities with regard to the de-orbiting technologies. European countries are leader in terms of knowledge, but it is still difficult to translate this know how into a real production of market goods. In order to improve the reliability of the de-orbiting manoeuvres and increase the passive or active satellites decommissioning devices, it is highly recommended to develop a series of products and place them on the market in along with an analysis of the related risks. Due to the ongoing nanosats projects, the number of space objects in space will drastically increase; future satellites will have to be implemented with new SDM measures so that new space technologies will not affect the space environment.

The knowledge concerning demisable solutions during an atmospheric re-entry is still at an early stage, nevertheless there is a high market demand for demisable solutions, which is leading towards the development of elements normally used in LEO (propellants, gas tanks, reaction wheels, large mechanisms). The current state of technology regarding controlled re-entry might also introduce the need to move to a larger launcher leading this, to a significant increase of the missions’ costs. For instance, the propellant for the deorbit phase can amount to 75% of the whole propellant budget. The illustrated increase will have to be mitigated by the evolutions of space technologies, which might prevent the mission costs to drastically raise. In conclusion, in paving the way for new satellites model and autonomous re-entry technologies, it is crucial to empower IOD projects and the existing know-how and technologies so to reduce expenses as much as possible. In carrying on this task, also reliability has to be taken into account in order to minimize risks.

SDM projects are spreading within the European framework and in order to sustain the industrial growth in this field, future technological projects must be oriented towards the development of cutting-edge passive deorbit Devices and the expansion of their technologies and drag augmentation devices: this will be possible only through the support of numerous IOD initiatives and by encouraging a continuous exchange of best practices within the European industry.

Deorbiting technologies cannot increase without an adequate plan for demise: this process must include testing, validation and verification approaches to the new technology; industrial research and investments shall be made to develop spacecraft hardware specifically referred to demise and to improve re-entry models, so to augment the reliability of the demise behaviour predictions. The demise technological development plan shall involve a large participation of the European entities and private actors and shall include in particular: demisable tanks, demisable structures, demisable optics, demisable mechanisms and AOCS actuators (Attitude and Orbit Control System).

The approach must also take into account passivation systems by developing propulsion passivation devices and power passivation devices. Additionally, controlled re-entry propulsion systems optimisation shall entail enhancement of monopropellant systems and solid rocket engines for controlled re-entry. This evolution process has to be characterized by a revolutionary level of technology and design: more specifically, technological and industrial efforts shall be oriented towards the achievement of: higher design standards for autonomous deorbit systems and removal, a mature technology level regarding semi-controlled re-entry, guidelines for EOL manoeuvres optimisation, and estimation studies on vulnerability and lifetime extension.

As previously mentioned, the innovation process involves a significant amount of resources, being this the hurdle which prevents operators from enhancing their industrial projects. A way forward to promote the technological development approach taking into consideration the characteristics of the European market, must be endorsed through an information campaign that allows players to actively participate, so to introduce compatibility between the new European space technologies and the industrial business opportunities. The final result of this future framework will have to enable a comparison on the numerous options for controlled and uncontrolled deorbiting. This comparison shall allow to find, case by case, the best solution in accordance with costs, reliability, risks, technological constraints, accomplishment timelines, etc. and contribute to delineate the system level requirements and the consequent implementation of the de-orbiting technologies on spacecraft.

In Orbit Servicing

This domain is of high international interest: Active Debris Removal in fact, is seen as the most promising feature to be included in space missions which fail in removing space debris. The development of technologies that allow reducing the risks of Space Debris Mitigation missions is crucial for the interest of the global market and their improvement must go along with the institution of a public market which will then enable and encourage access to private players in this domain. Moreover, improving the aforementioned technologies within the European market will lead Europe to a key position in the set-up of future standards.

Legal Framework

With regard to the legal aspects of ADR, in case a removal operation causes damage to a third state, both the launching state of the target (space debris) and the state carrying out the removal operation, are considered jointly and severally liable. All ADR operations therefore, can be considered as a hazard for space activities and the complex legal challenges in terms of liability concerning them, might discourage from starting a space debris removal mission. Furthermore, according to Article I of the Liability Convention, damage is only compensable if it consists of a “loss of life, personal injury or other impairment of health; or loss of or damage to property of States or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international intergovernmental organizations” meaning that States cannot be held liable for the mere presence in outer space of pollution or for the damages caused to the environment by the pollution.

In addition to this, an activity which is deemed to be hazardous without such hazard never really happening, cannot fall under the discipline of the Liability Convention. Likewise, since the Convention applies to damages “caused by a space object” and the definition of space object the Convention provides for refers to “component parts of a space objects as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”, one might also exclude the application of the Convention to damages caused by space debris. The legal situation gets even more intricate when talking about small debris: such particles might be defined neither as a space object, nor as a component part. However, if small debris cannot be classified as space objects, a great part of the Liability Convention discipline becomes meaningless, by excluding from its field of application the most common hazardous element for space activities.

Moreover, Article VIII of the OST affirms that a State shall retain jurisdiction over objects launched in outer space, being this legal regime applied even in case the object is not anymore functional. That means that even if a removal responsibility would be established, each state would be responsible only for the removal of its own debris.

Recommendations

The enforcement of the international framework on Space Debris is evolving worldwide: the European Space Agency and the European industry are fully committed in strengthening the harmonisation and this efforts have led Europe to gain a primary role in the scenario. In order for this process to not remain only theoretical, it has to be supported by a concrete technological increase, so that the new solutions arising from it will satisfy the commercial demand and take the market to an upper stage. The continuous interaction between European institutions and industry shall be deeply encouraged, since it assumes the role of the key factor giving rise to new global opportunities and technological progress, the latter including also the improvement of compliance with EOL Deorbiting requirements for future missions. Moreover, passivation systems (power passivation and propulsion passivation) shall be installed on future satellite models in order to enable their fully controlled and safe removal.

Satellites should have an autonomous removal capacity in 90% of the cases; instead, this reliability actually swings around 50 to 60%. The aforementioned reliability shall not only be compliant with the regulations, but also improved from a technical perspective, implying this higher costs and more technological production means. Presently, Autonomous De-orbit Systems and Semi-controlled Re-entry Systems are only a promising sector which might become a service in the future. All the knowledge regarding this field is developing in Europe. In addition to this, the illustrated scenario represents a significant hurdle which might discourage industrial players and technical operators to invest. It is not still clear in fact, which kind of advantages can arise from the improvement of the autonomous removal reliability; in order to expand the potential of this evolution it is therefore necessary to develop technologies so that they become a worthwhile commercial opportunity for satellites operators and increase the regulations by promoting lobbying activities. Moreover, a technological enhancement is urgent for future spacecraft operating in LEO which will have to be projected for both controlled and uncontrolled re-entry. As illustrated in the initial part of the Document, there are many European leader companies leader in this field. This technical knowledge must lead to the creation of industrial products and reduce their time to market. At the current state, no validation method has been approved in order to verify the efficiency of the European skills and technologies.

Private actors’ activities in outer space are spreading at a high rate and a more concrete industrial approach has to be adopted: in order to do so, it makes no sense to find remedies for space junk in a scenario where satellites are not equipped with devices allowing them to have a controlled and safe re-enter into the terrestrial orbit. Part of the international industry is heading towards this direction that is deemed to be the most appropriate: bearing in mind the current quick growth of operators (mostly private ones), the number of satellites sent in outer space in the coming future will at least triplicate. Following the current industrial involvement in the space sector, the number of space devices is likely to raise on the short-medium term meaning that in addition to find a solution to bring back existing satellites, the main point to focus on is a long lasting answer concerning the need for de orbiting systems. There is presently no consolidated monitoring system on space activities. Suggestions on this matter are focused on an independent system of observation being this in the form of internationally assembled teams of scientists so to allow the international community to determine that nothing against the prescriptions takes place in outer space or on celestial bodies. In particular, with regard to private companies, a permanent control managed by the United Nations has to be set, allowing the UN bodies to supervise space activities run by private actors from the planning stage to the completion. Even if it won’t be possible to introduce binding rules or sanctions in case of hazardous activities, negative opinions or soft measures might be adopted in the early phases of this scenario in order to discourage the advancement of the risky activities.

Current framework and initiatives to tackle the space debris issue

Space law provisions on debris seem to be pretty much inexistent, urging a creation of regulations and criteria for this field. The inadequacy of the OST with regard to the space debris issue is unambiguous: fallacies concern the lack of a well-articulated discipline referred to the space environment; in this sense the only sources that can be counted on are the Rio and the Stockholm Declarations on the Environment. There is no definition of negligence for activities carried out in outer space, nor any guidelines or best practices on this theme. According to the vision of a part of the scholars and experts, due to the low number of space faring nations this problem can be faced through a series of informal discussion. The space scenario anyway, has been expanding over the past 50 years meaning that many other nations with heterogeneous policies are now involved in the various activities that our cosmos offers. This leads to the conclusion that an informal method is inadequate; instead, a formal and stricter scenario has to be assumed in order to make the space debris issue become one of the major challenges to constantly tackle, both within the international framework and the national communities.

An initiative of this kind was promoted by an action group of the COPUOS in order to track NEOs (Near Earth Objects): the main guideline was to reduce politics and maximize results by adopting an IADC-like structure (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee). According to the article 5.4 of the IADC Guidelines, “In developing the design and mission profile of a spacecraft or orbital stage, a program or project should estimate and limit the probability of accidental collision with known objects during the spacecraft or orbital stage’s orbital lifetime” showing this provision how a central international regulation is inexistent, everything is referred to the states or entities carrying out the mission, which shall estimate and limit (not prevent) the risk of collisions, according to their own national criteria.

The lack of a clear set of regulations also emerges from the IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines Update of the 45th COPUOS Scientific and Technical Sub Committee: the last part of the summary declares: “All participants of space activity are encouraged to use the technical information, provided by the IADC Mitigation Guidelines (including its future updates) and IADC Support Documentation to help establish mission requirements for planned and existing space systems”. As illustrated, participants are only encouraged to follow the IADC guidelines; meaning that this is just a feeble attempt and there are no binding rules on this issue. This gap leads to a chaotic situation among national rules and leaves the problem unsolved. States shall adopt their own national rules in order to give rise to a more binding and homogeneous scenario on this matter. An example which might pave the way and inspire a juridical change, is the France’s Space Operations Act which addresses the operators’ management system, the repercussions of hazardous activities on the environment and identifies safety and environmental requirements for the launch, control and return of space objects.

One of the most prominent projects for a set of rules on space debris comes from the Space Debris Foundation and its “Orbital Debris Removal and Recycling Fund Scenario” (ODRRF), which is focused on the incentives for private actors so to fuel their participation in the space debris removal. What clearly emerges then, is the intention of involving the private sector in this field, private players might have more expertise and the best resources to address this issue. On the other side anyway, one has to say that a financial policy is needed: private players cannot autonomously move within a non-regulated context; in line with this necessity, one of the milestones of this plan is to introduce lower insurance costs so to permit private actors to develop considerable series of de-commissioning devices.

The achievement of an internationally shared and detailed space law policy for what concerns space debris seems to be full of juridical hurdles and far from happening. Space debris represent the first challenge that has to be necessarily addressed in order to preserve what has been reached so far and to keep fuelling the human advancement in space. Now more than ever therefore, priority must be given to the industry. Afterwards and in accordance with the industrial accomplishments, one will have to foster the international commitment for tailor-made juridical and financial solutions for those enterprises working in the space debris sector and for the whole space law scenario.

Carlo Belbusti holds a Master’s Degree in Law from Roma Tre University. He also attended a Postgraduate course in space law and policies at the Italian Society for the International Organization.