Ensuring the Sustainability of Outer Space - The Role of Space Law and Policy

On 2 June 2022, the NPOC Space Law Austria organised an online event at the margins of the 65th session of UNCOPUOS.

The full video of the event can be found here


The NPOC Space Law Austria, together with the Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (BMK), invited a number of renowned experts to share their experience on how to ensure the sustainability of outer space by means of law and policy. The event was organised online at the University of Vienna and was moderated by Irmgard Marboe, professor of international law. Victoria Schebek (BMK) welcomed the participants and attendees on behalf of Margit Mischkulnig (BMK). She pointed out the role of the BMK as a space ministry in Austria and gave an overview of the Austrian Space Strategy which was published last year. Among the strategic goals to reach until 2030, an important aim is to ensure sustainable development on earth and in space. By implementing the Space Strategy, Austria aims to become a pioneer in sustainable space activities. 

The Space Debris Challenge

Dr. Holger Krag (ESA) delivered an inspiring keynote presentation on the "Space Debris Challenge" in Earth orbits. He started his presentation with a few key figures concerning the amount of objects currently populating Earth orbits. While we can observe around 30,000 trackable pieces of debris (> 10 cm), it is estimated that the total number of debris (> 1mm) amounts to 150 million. Data shows that certain events, such as ASAT tests or satellite collisions, have a measurable impact on the space environment. 

In recent years, commercialisation has led to a massive increase in the number of active objects in space. At the same time, the mitigation of space debris has gained more awareness as well. Starting with technical measures in the 2002 IADC Guidelines, provisions on debris mitigation have found their way into national regulations and licensing processes. For missions in LEO, post-mission disposal can be accomplished either by re-entry or by de-orbiting of satellites. In GEO, re-orbiting to graveyard orbits is the only viable solution. Passivation and collision avoidance are important for all missions. 

According to prediction models, the current behaviour in passivation and post-mission disposal is close to doing nothing and would result in a significant increase in the number of objects in outer space over the years to come. In order to improve this outlook, ESA has launched a Zero Debris Approach. By 2030, ESA missions should have successful disposal rates well above 90%, as well as removal services for remaining in-orbit failures. ESA missions would have to present contracts for Active Debris Removal (ADR) already at launch. ESA has initiated the ClearSpace-1 Mission, an ADR Mission serving as an introduction of the market for removal services. 

Dr. Krag's slides can be found here

The UN Register on Space Objects

His speech was followed by a presentation on the registration of objects launched into outer space by Natercia Rodrigues (UNOOSA). She focussed on the registration of large constellations (>100 satellites) and megaconstellations (>1,000 satellites) in particular. In 2021, about 80% of the 1,800 satellites launched were part of large constellations or megaconstellations. The rise of these constellations has been of concern to the UNCOPUOS Legal Subcommittee for some time. Recent documents include a summary of Member State views (A/AC.105/C.2/2022/CRP.18) and a paper on the registration of large constellations and megaconstellations (A/AC.105/C.2/L.322). The existing practice shows a rather positive picture, with registrations of around 93% of the satellites associated with large constellations, and 94% of the satellites associated with megaconstellations during the past 5 years.

UNOOSA provides several recommendations for the information to submit during the registration of megaconstellations. These include:

  • COSPAR International Designator
  • Common name of space object
  • UTC time for date of launch and other times
  • Expected date when space objects achieve their operational orbit
  • Space object owner or operator
  • Additional information relating to the change of status of a space object (such as failure, re-entry)
  • Additional information on the constellation

For efficiency reasons, UNOOSA recommends the use of a spreadsheet format to submit information. 

Sustainability Aspects in the UN Space Treaties and the LTS Guidelines

Prof. Mahulena Hofmann continued with a presentation on sustainability aspects in the UN Space Treaties and the LTS Guidelines. As far as binding legal instruments are concerned, provisions on sustainability can be found in Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, in the 1968 Rescue Agreement, in the 1975 Registration Convention and in the 1979 Moon Agreement. Despite not being legally binding, recommendatory instruments such as ISO Standards, the 2007 UN Space Debris Mitigation Standards and the 2019 LTS Guidelines can provide an important impetus for the development of space law.

The policy and regulatory framework of the LTS Guidelines reiterates some provisions already found in UN/ITU Treaties. For the most part, however, they go further than the UN/ITU Treaties, especially with regard to sustainability and debris mitigation issues. While non-binding per se, instruments such as the LTS Guidelines can develop into customary international law or can become part of national law either through reception or adaptation. 

Prof. Hofmann's slides can be found here

Experiences with Implementing the LTS Guidelines from a National Perspective: United Kingdom

Continuing with an examination of the LTS Guidelines, Joanne Wheeler presented their implementation by the United Kingdom. The UK conducted a two-phase project "Awareness-raising and capacitiy-building related to the implementation of the LTS Guidelines" together with UNOOSA, resulting in a report published in June 2022. In the current fast-paced space environment, the commercial sector is key, as new categories of non-state actors and aspiring space nations are joining the international space commmunity. To ensure a level playing field and a multi-stakeholder approach, the LTS Guidelines are essential. 

The UK takes an outcome-based approach to implementing the LTS Guidelines to the greatest extent feasible and practicable. This is primarily achieved through licensing conditions. To implement LTS Guidelines A.1, A.2 and A.3, the UK examines a wide array of licensing criteria, the most important being:

  • compliance with international and European laws
  • insurance obligations
  • adequate financial and corporate standing, management experience
  • technical assessment
  • commercial assessment
  • policy considerations (including maintenance of international reputation)
  • national and international security requirements
  • space debris and sustainability guidelines

As a consolidated standard, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, together with industry, has developed the Space Sustainability Kitemark. This standard takes into account compliance with ISO and IADC standards, as well as the Space Sustainability Rating by the World Economic Forum and the LTS Guidelines.

Ms. Wheeler's slides can be found here

Spaceways Consortium and EU SPACEWAYS Horizon 2020 Project

Prof. Tanja Masson-Zwaan presented the SPACEWAYS project, a Horizon 2020-funded project of the European Union. Its aim is to assess technical and policy-related issues with Space Traffic Management (STM) and to come up with a set of recommendations to EU stakeholders. The focus was mainly on an analysis of European capabilities and technology gaps, as well as on policy, legal and economic aspects. STM is essential for safety, sustainability and security of space operations.  When assessing the legal framework, the SPACEWAYS project compared the regulatory challenges with other fields of international law, such as maritime and airspace law. 

While a global STM strategy is important, national efforts by agencies and industry are essential as well. The EU can play a fundamental role in this process, within its defined competences. Consequently, a cohesive voice of the EU is important, building upon the EC Joint Communication "An EU Approach for Space Traffic Management" of February 2022. In order to represent the entire EU space community, all stakeholders must be adequately engaged in the process, including institutional actors, public and private satellite operators, space surveillance and tracking (SST) service providers and R&D-related entities. 

In her conclusion, Prof. Masson-Zwaan emphasised that the EU should show its acceptance of international space law to strengthen its position as a responsible actor in outer space. This can help with reinforcing its position for negotiating future agreements on space safety and sustainability on the international stage. Discussions on STM should take place at UNCOPUOS and on the national stage. Moreover, coordination with, and involvement in ESA is necessary as well. 

Prof. Masson-Zwaan's slides can be found here

Experiences with Implementing the LTS Guidelines from the Belgian Perspective

Jean-François Mayence provided the audience with a presentation on the implementation of the LTS Guidelines by Belgium. Despite being a smaller state, Belgium has had its own national space law since 2005, with a revision in 2013. This law is supplemented by an implementing regulation adopted in 2008 and revised in 2022. Belgium has had 7 national activities and 36 objects registered since 2014. 

In its implementation of the LTS Guidelines, Belgium partly relies on ESA for a technical review. On-orbit monitoring is provided for by USSPACECOM. Further measures include environmental impact assessments analysing both ground impact and orbital impact.

A revision of the national legal framework in 2022 brings about several developments. The environmental impact assessment now includes an assessment of the impact of space resources use and exploitation. Cubesats are now required to undergo mandatory technical review by ESA. Moreover, Belgium aims to ensure the registration of objects whose launch is procured by non-governmental entities. The new criteria for this include objects designed and developed in Belgium, and objects launched on behalf of or operated by Belgian companies. Finally, the amended regulations also include a new alert procedure in case of Belgian-registered space object malfunction.

Mr. Mayence's slides can be found here

Due to connectivity issues, Dr. Ryan Guglietta could not deliver his presentation on the implementation of the 21 UN Guidelines in the United States. Dr. Guglietta's slides can be found here.