The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

orbital debris
Growing numbers of satellites and debris illustrate the need for laws and norms to ensure safe space operations. (credit: ESA)

Why laws and norms matter in space

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Space may be the final frontier and at times may feel like the untamed Wild West, but it is not outside the purview of the law. Consider that, at the outset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian-state actors launched a cyberattack against ViaSat’s KA-SAT commercial satellite network, disabling thousands of modems across Ukraine and Europe. Subsequently, SpaceX stepped up to provide Starlink services to Ukraine, which was instrumental in the Ukrainian military’s ability to defend itself. Failing in their attempts to jam Starlink, intelligence indicates that Russia planned to target Starlink through kinetic means. This gives rise to the question as to whether Russia could legally use this clandestine weapon to target Starlink. The brief answer is no.

To put things in perspective, here are eight reasons why laws and norms matter in space:

1) To keep outer space a war-free zone. Outer space has been militarized and may likely be weaponized. Additionally, the dual-use nature of space technology also raises serious concerns of malicious utilization and prospects of exploitation as space weapons. Leading spacefaring nations have made statements or taken actions that have resulted in space becoming a potential warfighting domain.

Although no comprehensive treaty about space weapons is in effect, a legal framework does exist. The Outer Space Treaty forbids countries from deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” in outer space. The Treaty’s arms control provisions are in Article IV whereby States commit not to:

  1. Place in orbit around the Earth or other celestial bodies any nuclear weapons or objects carrying WMD,
  2. Install WMD on celestial bodies or station WMD in outer space in any other manner,
  3. Establish military bases or installations, test “any type of weapons,” or conduct military exercises on the moon and other celestial bodies.
An armed conflict in space could easily escalate into a larger conflict on Earth, with devastating consequences.

Additionally, Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty emphasizes that outer space should remain exclusively for peaceful purposes and opposes any attempt to turn it into a war fighting domain.

An armed conflict in space could easily escalate into a larger conflict on Earth, with devastating consequences. The use of space weapons could also lead to a new arms race and the development of even more destructive weapons. Therefore, maintaining outer space as a war-free zone is important for preserving peaceful use of space for exploration, promoting scientific discovery, and protecting critical infrastructure and resources.

2) To put a ban on antisatellite (ASAT) tests. ASAT tests represent a direct threat to the peaceful utilization of outer space upon which humanity heavily relies. In the past few years, there has been a surge in activities that threaten satellites. The November 2021 Russian ASAT test that destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite is a case in point. The test created about 1,650 tracked pieces of space debris and undoubtedly many more pieces that are impossible to track.[1],

Leading by example to establish and promote international norms of responsible behavior in space, Vice President Kamala Harris pledged in April 2022 that the United States will not conduct debris-generating direct-ascent antisatellite tests. In December 2022, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the US-proposed resolution calling on states to commit to a moratorium on testing of destructive anti-satellite missiles, with the vast majority of countries voting yes. Today, 13 nations have formally pledged to implement this moratorium. This is an example of customary international law that could create a new norm of behavior by which other nations with anti-satellite capabilities will abstain from conducting such tests. Although still at a nascent stage and with a narrow scope, it has the potential to become jus cogens.

ASAT tests can destroy satellites and create space debris, which could in turn harm other satellites or even the International Space Station. This could severely disrupt essential services like global communications, weather forecasting and scientific research. Banning ASAT tests not only protects the space infrastructure but also preserves international stability and cooperation. It allows the space domain to not be overcome with debris “pollution” like our oceans today, thereby, safeguarding humankind from a “tragedy of the commons.”[2]

3) To control reentry of rockets back to Earth. Satellites are launched using rockets, however, while some rocket bodies are brought back to Earth in a controlled manner, others are left in orbit. While controlled reentries provide predictability and help avoid any unforeseen calamities, uncontrolled reentries could lead to indiscriminate threats to people on land, air, or water. In 2016, uncontrolled re-entries of two pressure vessels from SpaceX rockets (the size of washing machines) landed in Indonesia. In 2020, remnants of a 20-ton piece of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket that flew over Los Angeles and New York is suspected to have landed in Côte d'Ivoire. Recognizing that the “use of space by any single state has global implications, with risks potentially exported from launching states to other states”, international experts have compiled the Montreal Recommendations on Aviation Safety and Uncontrolled Space Object Reentries to call on States to “establish requirements to avoid uncontrolled re-entries of space objects.”

Uncontrolled reentry can result in debris falling over populated areas or sensitive ecosystems, potentially causing injury or damage to property, or wildlife and habitats. Controlled reentry allows for a safe and predictable trajectory, minimizing the risk of harm to people and property on the ground as well as the risk of damage to the environment.

4) To ensure compliance before launch of a mission. Compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations for all commercial launches is mandatory. One of the major responsibilities of the FAA is to regulate US commercial space transportation by licensing commercial space launch facilities and private launches of space payloads on expendable launch vehicles. SpaceX was recently under the scanner for violating a provision that requires an operator to “prepare a collision avoidance analysis worksheet for each launch or reentry and provide it to the FAA at least 7 days before the first attempt at the flight of a launch vehicle or the reentry of a reentry vehicle.”[3] The FAA proposed a $175,000 civil penalty against SpaceX for failure to submit launch collision analysis trajectory data prior to the August 19, 2022, launch of the Starlink Group 4-27 mission. The purpose of submitting such an analysis is to ensure that a rocket won’t collide into a Starlink satellite or any of the other thousands of satellites and/or pieces of orbital debris.

Reducing the number of dead satellites in space is important to mitigate the threat of space debris and ensure sustainable space use for future generations.

Adherence with launch compliances ensures that it is safe for the public and space mission, and providers are prepared for contingencies. Obtaining all necessary permits before the launch and fulfilling all safety regulations minimizes the risk of accidents or damage to property both on land and in space. Compliance with the law also ensures that all parties involved are aware of their responsibilities and obligations.

5) To reduce the population of defunct satellites in lower Earth orbit (LEO). There are more than 5,000 active satellites operating in LEO, an average of 42 new satellites being launched into orbit weekly and more than 1,800 defunct satellites left in LEO. In an effort to address and reduce the growing risk of “space junk”, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted new rules for deorbiting satellites after five years, one-fifth the time than the erstwhile guideline of 25 years. The 2022 rules require LEO operators to deorbit their satellites within five years following the completion of their missions, with two years of transition time before the rules take effect. This rule is expected to increase space actors’ accountability and avoid the risk of expensive collisions in an industry worth USD 279 billion a year.

Reducing the number of dead satellites in space is important to mitigate the threat of space debris and ensure sustainable space use for future generations. With the exponential rise in large constellation launches, a decline in dead satellite counts helps collision avoidance with debris which can otherwise cause damage, leading to mission failure or loss of life.

6) To develop best practices for the sustainability of space operations. Debris is already a significant problem in critical Earth orbits. More than 27,000 trackable orbital debris objects exist alongside thousands of untracked smaller fragments, traveling at extremely high velocities. Space debris can cause catastrophic damage to satellites and humans in space . Moreover, as the amount of debris grows and as orbits become more congested, the probability of new collisions further multiplies, risking the Kessler Syndrome.[4] . Over time, this will detrimentally impact the cost of safe and predictable operations in orbit, rendering access to space more expensive.

Therefore, to minimize the risks of collisions in orbit and address space littering, the White House National Science and Technology Council released the National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan, which aligns and meets some of the objectives of Space Policy Directive 3, for tracking and characterizing orbital debris in LEO. The Debris Implementation Plan identifies 44 specific actions for federal agencies across three pillars:

  1. Debris Mitigation: will end debris creation, keep the orbital environment litter-free and safely operable, and ensure long term sustainability of outer space.
  2. Tracking and Characterization of Debris: sets forth actions for improving our observation capabilities for tracking spacecraft and debris in orbit.
  3. Remediation of Debris: addresses technologies being developed to remove existing debris from orbit such as active debris removal (ADR), on-orbit servicing, and debris recycling.

Similarly, to promote application of best practices amongst space industry stakeholders, the Space Safety Coalition (SSC) published an updated guideline document on “Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations” to minimize the risk of collisions in orbit. It establishes “rules of the road” for coordinating maneuvers between objects in space, avoiding intentional fragmentation of objects in space, and end of mission disposals. The guidelines have been endorsed by 31 space industry stakeholders to date. Implementation of such steps by stakeholders within their respective organizations establishes norms of behavior that advances sustainable space operations.

Developing best practices is important because it helps maximize resource efficiency in space. It also promotes responsible behavior among space operators, which includes following ethical and legal guidelines and respecting the rights of other space users.

7) To allocate jurisdiction and control over all space objects. The UN has maintained a catalog of launched objects in space since 1962 to support the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in its deliberations on the political, legal, and technical issues concerning outer space. Subsequently, in 1976 the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space was enacted, by virtue of which states agreed to abide by its requirements of establishing their own national registries and providing information on their space objects to the Secretary-General for inclusion in the United Nations Register. As of April 2023, the Convention has been ratified by 75 States and four international intergovernmental organizations. This has enabled space object registration to become a means of identifying which states bear international responsibility for space objects, thereby increasing accountability in the sovereign-free environment of outer space.

Registration allows objects in space to be identified and tracked and promotes transparency in space activities. By making information about space objects publicly available, the international community can have a better understanding of what is happening in space and work together to promote responsible space behavior.

8) To determine liability in space. As per the Outer Space Treaty and Liability Convention, a country is responsible for any damage caused by a space object it launches or has procured. If damage is caused to Earth or aircraft in flight, the launching state is fully responsible. However, in space, liability is based on “fault,” which is not clearly defined. There is an element of “negligence”. According to Article VI of the Liability Convention, if the launching state can prove that the damage was a result of gross negligence by the claiming state, then they are absolved of absolute liability.

Today’s new space environment is fragile, and laws are critical for peaceful, safe, and sustainable use of this important domain. As outer space becomes increasingly accessible to both governments and private entities, it creates a need for laws and behavioral norms.

Additionally, if multiple countries are involved in launching a space object, they may be held jointly and severally liable. Damages are measured by the cost of restoring the harmed party to their original condition. The Liability Convention was used once in 1977 when Russia’s Cosmos 954 fell into Canada, and the remnants included radioactive material. Canada claimed $6 million in damages but settled for $3 million with the Soviet Union in 1981.

In the event of damage or harm caused by space objects, laws provide a mechanism for determining responsibility for compensating the affected. Determining liability can also inform future space activities by helping to understand the causes of space incidents. It can aid space agencies and operators design spacecraft and satellites that are more resilient and less likely to cause harm.

Today’s new space environment is fragile, and laws are critical for peaceful, safe, and sustainable use of this important domain. As outer space becomes increasingly accessible to both governments and private entities, it creates a need for laws and behavioral norms. Without laws, there would be no framework for governing activities such as satellite launches, space exploration, and other commercial space activities. Consequently, laws ensure that activities in space are conducted in a responsible and sustainable manner that protects the space environment for future generations. This includes laws governing space debris and the use of weapons in space and behavioral norms. Without regulations and norms, there would be no mechanism for holding individuals or entities accountable for their actions in space. Therefore, to ensure the safety and security of individuals and property in space, laws are critical for today’s new space environment.


  1. Oltrogge, D.L. et al, “Comparison of predicted and observed spacecraft encounters from Russian ASAT test,” paper #324.
  2. Tragedy of the commons refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a public resource (also called a common) act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource.
  3. 14 C.F.R. § 450.169(f)
  4. Kessler syndrome is a scenario in which the density of objects in Earth’s orbit is high enough that collisions between objects cause a cascade, with each collision generating space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.

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