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Space debris

What can be done?

Satellites are owned and operated by many governments and commercial companies. It is not easy to agree how to control and reduce the amount of space debris being produced.

Using ground-based radar facilities and telescopes as well as a space based telescope, the American government tracks space debris. It maintains a catalogue of objects identified, partly to prevent their misinterpretation as hostile missiles.

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space published its Technical Report on Space Debris in 1999.  In 2002, the Inter-agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) published its Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. The IADC assessed the sources of space debris:

Categories of Space Debris
Mission-related objects Objects released by design e.g. needles and balls for experiments
Unintentionally- released objects e.g dropped tools and leaking liquids

Intentional destruction e.g. before re-entry to minimise casualties on the ground or for military experiments
Accidental break-ups e.g. explosions on mission failure
On-orbit collisions with other objects
space systems
Old systems left in orbit

(Source: Based on Inter-agency Space Debris Coordination Committee IADC-04-06)

Then the IADC recommended new guidelines. These aim to:


  • limit the objects released during normal operations
  • prevent on-orbit break-ups
  • require operators to remove spacecraft and orbital stages at the end of their mission lifetime from the useful, densely-populated orbit regions of space  

 A European Code of Conduct for Space Debris Mitigation came into effect in 2004. It covers the production, operation and disposal of satellites.   However, none of these guidelines are legally binding.

Next: Space warfare

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crater in glass window

Space debris impact on Space Shuttle window.

 The IADC standards have cost implications for satellite operators. 
Use the PEEP pages on Ethical Principles to develop an argument justifying why government and commercial satellite operators should pay more.