Monday, March 1, 2010

Space Junk Getting Worse

Space Junk. . . . the old rocket clunkers, metal scraps, and dilapidated satellites littering the final frontier. It's an illustration of a tragedy of the commons on a massive scale, and there seemingly has been little done to remedy it. An MSNBC article written last week notes how the problem is getting worse:
The already untidy mass of orbital debris that litters low Earth orbit nearly got nastier last month. A head-on collision was averted between a spent upper stage from a Chinese rocket and the European Space Agency's huge Envisat Earth remote-sensing spacecraft. Space junk tracking information supplied by the U.S. military, as well as confirming German radar data, showed that the two space objects would speed by each other at a nail-biting distance of roughly 160 feet (50 meters).
This problem is quite substantial because such items flying around the earth's orbit act as virtual bullets that can penetrate satellites and spacecraft, potentially causing considerable and costly damage. While the science is fascinating, at BBL we are (as always) interested in the legal issues presented by this problem.

There are two related issues that I have been involved in researching recently. First, the problem seems to be partially attributed to a lack of effective regulation on a global basis. It is true that agencies such as NASA have implemented certain guidelines to deal with the issue, and the U.N. has also attempted to solve the problem--i.e., United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. But space debris nonetheless seems to continue causing problems. The image in this post alone illustrates just how pervasively such "junk" permeates earth's orbit.

I want to pose a question regarding further regulations' potential effectiveness. The problem of space junk, I think, can be partly attributed to the fact that governments, in essence, are the entities that need to be regulated. Thus, are self-imposed guidelines, for example, largely ineffective in an area such as space regulation because of the biases countries may have toward the domestic advancement of space exploration? International dispute resolution bodies--such as the World Trade Organization--have shown success in adjudicating disputes between member-bodies over alleged anticompetitive trade actions. But can similar schemes be implemented to deal with the space debris problem?


  1. don't know much about the issue, but this is one of those areas that continues to prove the necessity of government intervention. the free market has numerous failures, and we need to intervene to prevent the problems. the healthcare debate is a prime example of this phenonman.


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