Quad for international rulemaking for space debris removal

December 9, 2020 11:38 AM

There are some commercial companies, such as Astroscale of Japan, contracted with its national space agency, JAXA, to test its operations to remove space debris.

space debris, secure orbital environment, sustainable use of space, removal of space debris, Astroscale of Japan, JAXA, Space Situational Awareness, Space Domain AwarenessSpace debris can take out our military capabilities by hitting reconnaissance satellites or communications satellites. (Source: ESA)

By Kazuto Suzuki

Space debris travels at the speed of 7.9km/s (28,000km/h).  If it hits on satellites, even the smallest debris like nuts and bolts can destroy multi-million-dollar machine in the orbit.  It would take out our military capabilities by hitting reconnaissance satellites or communications satellites.  So, it is imperative to remove the space debris for secure orbital environment and sustainable use of space.  Some debris may be gravitated to earth and burned into the atmosphere if they are flying lower altitudes, but not all debris naturally decay.  So, in order to remove space debris, we need to actively remove them.

There are some commercial companies, such as Astroscale of Japan, contracted with its national space agency, JAXA, to test its operations to remove space debris.  It finds that there is a huge demand for active debris removal, and its services will be essential for maintaining the orbital environment safe.  For many commercial and governmental space operators, it is worth paying the cost of debris removal for protecting their expensive space assets.  Thus, there is a strong expectation that Astroscale will make a good business if its experiment of debris removal is successful.

However, there is a big problem for Astroscale to conduct its operation.  If a company possess a technology that can take out space debris as large as defunct satellite, it can take out satellites in operation.  In other words, such debris removal activities can be viewed as a space weapon to remove hostile satellites.  Since space is too far and it is difficult to see what is going on, there is always a suspicion that these debris removal activities may approach their satellites and take them out.

In order to avoid misunderstanding and suspicion, it is absolutely necessary to ensure transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBM).  The operators such as Astroscale should guarantee to provide all information related to their operation and make sure that they are working on only the stated targets in stated orbits.  They have to demonstrate their intentions and flight plans and encourage others to see the information with regard to its operation.

It is also necessary to establish a rule or code of conduct on how to ensure transparency.  Since TCBM is the necessary condition for conducting active debris removal, it should not be based on the voluntary commitment of commercial operators.  It should be based on the treaty or international agreement for ensuring legal certainties.

In doing so, it should be done by countries with similar values.  It is not difficult to assume that no matter how you sincerely try to include all stakeholders, such as China or Russia, it would be difficult to reach consensus.  If the rulemaking process takes a long time and eventually fails, it would be devastating for the future of space activities for all spacefaring nations.  It should start from somewhere and the place to start is a small multilateral regime with countries that shares the same values and objectives for establishing international rules for TCBM.  Once the rules are established and all the operators are conducting their businesses according to the rule, it becomes standard practice for debris removal.  All it takes is to set up a rule with states which are capable of conducting such operations and having stakes in such activities.

Which countries should be involved in the rulemaking processes?  I think Quad countries – Japan, US, India and Australia – would be the ideal set of countries for stepping up to establish international standard and code of conduct for TCBM in debris removal for three reasons: (a) Quad shares interests in protecting their space assets for civil and military purposes.  They are active space users and depends on space assets for their socio-economic activities: (b) Quad possess capabilities of monitoring what is going on in space.  Space Situational Awareness (SSA) or Space Domain Awareness (SDA) is the key to monitor the position and trajectory of space objects in orbits.  It is important to have India and Australia in this network of monitoring space because of their locations.  India can monitor both Northern and Southern hemisphere and Australia is in Southern hemisphere.  This would bring a much wider view on what is going on in space: (c) There are several outstanding operators in Quad countries which require such rules for TCBM.  Not only Astroscale of Japan but also Northrop Grumman of the United States, which successfully conducted a test to refill satellite are important players in Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO).  Like active debris removal, refill fuel for satellite requires rendezvous and docking technologies that may be used for military purposes.

For these reasons, Quad provides a good technological and operational platform for developing international rules for RPO.  Such rules are needed more today since space is more crowded and congested.  The risk of colliding with the debris is higher than ever.  It is crucial to take actions as soon as possible to facilitate the activities for debris removal by setting up international rules, and Quad should be the starting point to do this.

(The author is Professor of Science and Technology Policy, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo. Views are personal)


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