Falling space debris, rising hopes to end it

A near miss from the reentry of a Chinese rocket caught the world’s attention about litter in orbit. That could make it easier to set a global norm on space behavior.

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket takes off April 29 from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province.

For 10 days starting in late April, the world was warned that a large Chinese rocket in space would enter the atmosphere and scatter debris at an unknown point. On May 8, the 23-ton rocket finally did plunge to Earth in the Indian Ocean. While the reentry was harmless, the heightened anxiety put a fresh spotlight on whether all spacefaring nations – not just China – are any closer to setting a global norm for disposing of millions of pieces of space junk.

The quick answer is yes. According to a new Rand report, much of the world now has a growing recognition that the rapid pace in space launches requires progress toward “responsible space behavior.” One reason is that more nations are quick to criticize each other for a close miss, even if they have a history of causing space debris. NASA, for example, criticized China after the rocket reentry for “failing to meet responsible standards,” even though the U.S. agency has needlessly left objects in orbit in the past.

Another reason is that more nations are trying to write “rules of the road” for space. Previous treaties on space have proved inadequate for a new age of space that includes so many players. The number of satellites in Earth’s orbit is expected to increase tenfold over the coming decade, many of them launched by commercial operators. More than 60 nations are active in space, up from 20 three decades ago.

The latest move on space debris was a resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December. It calls on U.N. member states to share information about their space policies and offer ideas for setting norms. Both the European Union and the United States are also working with spacefaring nations to set up codes of behavior.

More progress is possible if the major powers are transparent about what objects they have in space. “The powers that demonstrate tangible transparency first are more likely to emerge as leaders in the longer-term effort to develop norms for responsible behavior,” the Rand report states. This will require a shift in thinking that puts safety for humanity ahead of security for any country relying on space for its defense.

“The geopolitical competition in space is accelerating and the more the public knows about it, the better,” the report concludes. After the near miss of China’s rocket, the world may finally be ready for a global solution to all the litter aloft.

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