Journal of Air Law and Commerce


Space debris is a growing public safety problem. As described by the Kessler Syndrome, the increasing accumulation of debris will soon hinder and eventually preclude access to outer space unless the trend is swiftly reversed. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee’s (IADC) Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, as adopted by the United Nations (UN) Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), are voluntary but are enforced as mandatory regulations by major space powers; however, the guidelines only apply to new debris. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) 2017 Space Debris Conference concluded that existing space debris guidelines are inadequate and must be further strengthened in order to successfully control space debris.

An institutional problem is that the IADC, the committee that originated the current space debris guidelines, is not a UN body. It is an independent organization of the thirteen most active national space agencies. It lacks geographical representation. The IADC has no legal authority to monitor, change, or strengthen the international guidelines as debris accumulation increases. Moreover, the IADC lacks legal enforcement authority. This article will examine several possible alternatives for stronger space debris control. These options are: (1) strengthened COPUOS debris regulations; (2) international space debris regulation by an international organization on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) model; (3) international space debris regulation by an international organization on the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) model; (4) space debris regulation by a non-governmental organization; (5) ringing the IADC space debris activity into COPUOS in the form of a third subcommittee; and (6) separate international treaty regulation by and for the thirteen IADC states in the absence of UN action.

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the individual states under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) to authorize, supervise, and police their generation of space debris and to hold operators responsible for debris. This article makes final recommendations.