Space: what are the rules regarding space satellites and their destruction?



France and the United States condemned Tuesday, November 15, the destruction of a satellite by Moscow, Monday, via missile fire. This destruction has indeed generated “more than 1,500 traceable orbital debris” according to Washington, forcing astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS) to take cover in their ships.

>> France denounces the “overwhelming responsibility” of “space wreckers” after the destruction of a satellite by Moscow: follow our direct

With the progression of space programs around the world, the number of objects launched into space, and with them, space debris, has increased sharply in 60 years. Thus, in 2021, the number of space debris larger than one centimeter is estimated at 129 million, which represents 10,000 tonnes. Such small waste may seem harmless, but traveling at a speed of 7 to 8 kilometers per second, even the smallest object can cause very significant damage in the event of a collision. States have therefore adopted different regulations to deal with it.

Non-binding rules

States have coordinated to establish a way forward, thanks to “guidelines” established by the United Nations. However, these are theoretical. “The guidelines are voluntary and are not legally binding under international law; but any measures taken for the purpose of their implementation should be in accordance with applicable principles and standards of international law”, thus puts down the document. However, he also specifies that “States and international intergovernmental organizations must cooperate internationally to avoid undermining the space environment and the security of space operations”.

Rules to limit the creation of debris

The United Nations has established principles for “apply space debris mitigation measures”. Its guide to “guidelines” thus asks the various space agencies that rocket stages or satellites do not remain in orbit for more than 25 years after they cease to operate. They also call on countries to build launchers and satellites that generate as little debris as possible, with components capable of volatilizing more easily when they enter the atmosphere. At the end of a mission, a spacecraft must be completely drained of its fuel. The objective is, according to the UN, the “long-term sustainability of space activities”.

A specific procedure for destroying satellites

The various signatory States of the guide to good practices are requested to put in place specific procedures to ensure the safe destruction of devices which have finished their mission. “Spacecraft and launcher orbital stages that have completed their operational phases (…) should be desorbed in a controlled manner.” In its March 2020 report, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee even posits that “Intentional destruction, which will generate long-lived orbital debris, should not be planned or carried out”. Overall, all “Harmful activities which can greatly increase the risk of collision for other spacecraft and orbital stages should be avoided”.

If it is not possible, these destructions are carried out either with a missile which strikes the satellite, or with a destructive satellite which explodes next to the targeted machine. They must be carried out at “sufficiently low altitudes” to limit the life of debris from destruction. This means that theThe machine must return to the atmosphere, ideally in the South Pacific and in a large uninhabited area. If this is not possible, the guide provides that they “should be cleared into orbits such that their prolonged presence in this region would be avoided”. This destruction in orbit is causing damage. Thus, in 2007, the destruction of a Chinese satellite had generated approximately 3,500 pieces of debris.

Communication recommendations

Beyond the technical rules, the United Nations also establishes regulations on communication between the countries concerned. They are thus called to “establish appropriate means for ensuring timely coordination to reduce the risk of orbital collision, in-orbit fragmentation and other events which may increase the risk of accidental collision or which may constitute a risk to human life”.

The guide even insists that a “State (…) which has in advance information on planned events involving the uncontrolled re-entry of potentially dangerous space objects” must share this information with the other concerned State (s).



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