On-Orbit Servicing and Active Debris Removal: Legal Aspects

On-Orbit Servicing and Active Debris Removal: Legal Aspects

P. J. Blount (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7256-5.ch011

Abstract

This chapter examines the legal issues associated with the activities of on-orbit servicing and active debris removal. It addresses these legal issues from the perspective of military, civil, and commercial space activities. It argues that the major international legal challenges for these technologies are avoiding their weaponization in order to use them to provide for the sustainability of the space environment. Further, it argues that the development of domestic authorization regimes will be necessary precursor to the deployment of OOS and ADR.
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On-Orbit Servicing And Active Debris Removal

As emerging innovative technologies, OOS and ADR are not dealt with explicitly by space law, and neither the space treaties nor any known national law directly addresses these two capabilities. At the international level, this is because the space treaties, and in particular the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (hereinafter the Outer Space Treaty), were negotiated to allow for new technologies and innovations to emerge in light of the unknown course for the development of technology (Blount, 2018). The result is that international space law is built on principles that apply to space activities comprising a broad range of technologies. At the national or domestic level, the lack of direct regulation can be attributed to a general lag in the development of the law. These technologies are still nascent in development and, as such, have not yet had sufficient time to warrant specific domestic regulatory actions.

Since one of the key applications of both OOS and ADR is the mitigation and reduction of space debris, it should be noted, in particular, that no binding international agreement exists concerning the mitigation or active removal of space debris. After a multi-year effort, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) published a set of technical mitigation guidelines in 2002. These guidelines were presented to the United Nations (UN) Committee for Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), which in turn adapted the guidelines and adopted its own set of debris mitigation measures. While both the IADC and UN COPUOS guidelines represent positive steps forward, neither set of rules are legally binding on states. Despite the fact that these guidelines are not legally binding, numerous states including the US, France, Russia, and China as well as the European Space Agency have adopted some form of debris mitigation guidelines. These national frameworks, though, generally do not speak to the specifics of OOS or ADR.

In light of these legal lacunae, the following legal analysis will attempt to explain how these new two categories of future space missions may fit into the current legal framework and will emphasize critical issues that result from the various gaps in the law (Losekamm et al., 2015, p. 1-2; Masson-Zwaan & Richards, 2015).

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