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New Developments in Space Debris Mitigation

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I’m still not convinced that we are seeing clear momentum towards stronger outer space governance. However, there is movement on more specialized issues. Not in a centralized, formal-agreement-at-the-United-Nations manner but in a more polycentric way. I’m referring to two recent announcements regarding space debris mitigation (i.e. preventing new space junk from being created).

Industry: The Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations

The first are the Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations, published in June 2023 by the World Economic Forum. It is an industry effort, organized by the WEF’s Future of Space Network in collaboration with ESA and signed by 27 aerospace companies. Among them are some well-known names like OneWeb, Thales, and Airbus but other, bigger names – SpaceX and Amazon most notably – are absent. This will limit the practical impact of the Recommendations unless the consortium somehow manages to get SpaceX on board (and given Elon’s distaste for the WEF I don’t see this happening). The best that this initiative can hope for is to move the normative discussion forward and inject their ideas into future deliberations.

And to be fair, the Recommendations are alright. They generally build upon existing standards by the UN and the IADC but move them forward in some respects. For instance, the post-mission disposal window for satellites is shortened from 25 to five years. The Recommendations aim at a 95-99% post-mission disposal rate instead of 90%. They also expand the discussion in some innovative direction, e.g. bringing in insurers and demanding that spacecraft operators share data for the purpose of traffic management.

ESA: The Zero Debris Charter

The second initiative came from ESA which announced its „Zero Debris Charter“ proposal on 22 June 2023 at the Le Bourget Air Show. The aspiration here is very simple: reducing the waste left behind in orbit to zero. ESA has recruited several industry partners, notably OHB, Airbus, and Thales, and aims to „identify ambitious and meaningful targets to be achieved by 2030 and will develop the text of the Zero Debris Charter, aiming for completion around the end of 2023“. Clearly, we will have to wait and see a) what the specific targets of the Charter will be and b) if the Charter will be adopted by further actors.

Both proposals are supported by ESA in one way or the other. Commendably, they do not shy away from uncomfortable truths about the unsustainability of present practices and set ambitious goals that move the discussion forward. And I think that this is their ultimate purpose – kickstart new discussions and shift the „space of the possible“ beyond existing goals and aspirations. In very European fashion, ESA is positioning itself as a norm entrepreneur and uses its leverage to get (mostly) European space companies on board. Whether this will have a wider impact remains to be seen.

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