The industry is working to make the policy difficulties of orbital debris cleanup more manageable

Industry experts say policy issues around active debris clearance are not as tough to overcome as many people imagine, but they concede that they may stymie attempts to eliminate the most hazardous pieces of trash in orbit. While much of the attention on the active debris removal (ADR) focuses on the technologies required to capture and remove objects from orbit, policy issues may be more pressing. Eliminating a derelict satellite or even upper stage, for example, necessitates the approval of the owner, which can be challenging if the owner is from another country.

“When people looked at the legal and policy viability of active debris clearance, they frequently came to the conclusion that it was too difficult since there were so many insurmountable hurdles. During a panel discussion at American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ ASCEND conference on November 9, Josef Koller, who is a co-lead of The Aerospace Corporation’s Space Safety Institute, said, “The only conclusion is that we need an international institution or even an international treaty which is handling active debris removal.”


He didn’t agree. He stated, “I don’t believe we can wait for a global treaty or an international institution.” He wrote a report that took a “bottoms-up” approach to the problem, looking for instances where the active debris removal may be viable from a policy standpoint. According to him, there are a variety of instances in which active debris removal is permissible. Agreement between the ADR service provider and the debris owner, regulatory approval, and a contractual deal between the parties that covers liability and related issues are all part of these circumstances.

The method suggested by Koller in his study was approved by Charity Weeden, who works as the vice president in charge of the global space policy for the Astroscale U.S. firm.  “We can’t be overwhelmed by excuses like ‘it’s too difficult,’ or ‘it’s too expensive,'” she remarked. “We need to deconstruct it, and there are things we can do right now.”

The larger objects, like as upper stages and huge satellites remaining in orbit, would most likely be the first targets for active debris removal systems. If those objects break up, whether in a collision or even on their own, they pose the highest risk of producing significant amounts of debris.

“If one of them is involved in a collision or a breakup, thousands of small ones will be produced quickly,” stated Holger Krag, who works as the head in charge of European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office. “Large items are the source of little objects, and we must address the debris source.” That indicates we should focus all of our efforts on removing huge objects.”

One issue with this strategy is that many of the things are Russian or Chinese in origin. Last year, researchers discovered that the 20 “statistically most worrying” debris items in orbit were all Zenit upper stages. Upper stages make up 78 percent of the highest level 50 most dangerous things.



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