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The issue of space debris has already for some time been very high upon the agenda of scientists, worrying about the future possibilities to undertake astronomical observations from earth. Currently, these worries are increasingly spreading to the public at large, in view of the risks of damage being caused on earth— the deorbiting of Mir, in a way the largest piece of space debris ever, was a media issue for many weeks. And even commercially oriented entities are rapidly coming to realise that the growing amount of tiny objects in outer space will not just obstruct or endanger scientific exploration, but also the commercial exploitation of outer space.
Hence, the issue has also worried legal experts, e.g. in the context of UNCOPUOS where it is a recurring agenda item. Here, however, some caution must be had. Legal experts have been discussing legal aspects of space debris for quite some time, and actually many legal proposals have seen the light of day, from fairly simple extensions of interpretations of legal terms to challenging new instruments.
For example, a few years ago a scientific team at the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Arizona had devised a spectacular project to actually go out into debris-rich orbits with a space garbage collector—the ASPOD. It was even patented—patents representing a legal instrument clearly used to achieve either a scientific or a commercial objective (or both)—but, as it turned out, the patent was never used. Actual building, launch and operation of the ASPOD would have cost millions of US dollars without bringing, as such, direct financial benefits to those paying those dollars.
Thus, in the last resort it is not law that will solve the problem of space debris, or at least solve it on its own. Once money and/or political will are there, law will be able to offer a number of interesting mechanisms for trying to ensure that such money would be well spent and such political will would be translated into useful practical results. But as long as the solutions that exist are seen as costing too much money or as resulting in unacceptable checks on national sovereignty, with perhaps a few interesting exceptions legal solutions would remain merely sleeping solutions. Would the waiting not perhaps be for a crucial triggering event, waking everyone up to the danger?
Fortunately, recent developments seem to suggest that such a crucial event would perhaps not be necessary; that the mere accumulation of, as such as of yet still minor, problems make states and other relevant players more willing to consider real improvements, perhaps even at the cost of substantial sums of money or of sovereignty. Hence, it may be rather timely to take a second look at what the law would be able to contribute in this regard.