UNOOSA Calls for Increased Efforts to Combat Space Debris

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: January 8, 2024; 23:39 ♦ (Vindobona)

Aarti Holla-Maini, the Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, is calling on governments and industry to accelerate voluntary guidelines for the sustainable use of outer space. With the increase in rocket launches and satellites, there is growing concern about the risk of dangerous collisions and the creation of space debris.

NASA estimates that around 9,000 tons of debris are orbiting the Earth at speeds of up to 25,000 km/h, including old rocket bodies, disused satellites and fragments of exploded engines. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons / Rrinsindika, CC BY-SA 3.0

Holla-Maini emphasizes the need for a multilateral process and intensive cooperation, as the Financial Times reports from an interview with the UN official. The implementation of the UN guidelines published in 2019 would significantly promote space sustainability. These include proposals for the safe handling of activities in space, debris mitigation, and improved data exchange.

NASA estimates that around 9,000 tons of space debris are orbiting the Earth, posing a potential hazard. According to the Space Sustainability Rating, launch traffic in low Earth orbit is 27 times higher than it was ten years ago.

Geopolitical tensions could complicate discussions about a new legal framework in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is considered outdated for the rapidly growing commercial space sector. Last year, the UN called for a new legal framework to meet the challenges.

Hermann Ludwig Moeller, the head of the European Space Policy Institute think tank, said according to the Financial Times that "new treaties are complicated." If I was looking for a solution to an issue that was becoming worse every day, I wouldn't place this on my critical path. Although guidelines by themselves cannot solve problems, best practices need to be promoted. The principles, which took over ten years to draft, were considered a breakthrough in global space administration.

However, they are not legally enforceable, and hundreds of private sector businesses and more than 70 nations already have space-related projects or goals. It has been difficult for national authorities to adapt to this shifting climate. The Space Generation Advisory Council, a group that supports the multilateral agency by bringing together 25,000 young space professionals, recently submitted a report to the UN stating that while some governments have started incorporating many of the guidelines into national law, "a number have yet to do so, which presents a potentially major gap."