Since the commencement of human-driven space activities in 1950s, hundreds of rockets, spaceships and satellites have been launched into space. Most of such objects, or parts of them, never made it back into our atmosphere and kept on rotating uncontrolled around the globe, posing a serious threat to our daily lives by hitting and deviating satellites which we all rely on. Although claim handlers might look at this as an opportunity, this is a serious hazard to both operators and end-users.
Imagine watching the final World Cup match and a second before the decisive penalty kick is shot, the satellite TV system loses its signal. Or imagine yourself exploring a new holiday destination, the one you have been dreaming about for months and months, planning every little aspect of your itinerary through the city when in the midst of it, such itinerary is disrupted because suddenly your online map application logs you out notwithstanding a functioning internet connection. These are all possible and realistic scenarios that might occur more and more frequently in the near future unless proper action is taken with respect to space traffic and debris management.
Debris present in our orbits is a real threat to modern space economies. Our day-to-day lives rely on technology and in particular, on satellites rotating around the world sending an infinite flow of information and data, upwards and downwards. Debris can be rocket-size or the size of a finger, where small instruments float either alone or in the form of constellations. 2021 witnessed the launch of approximately 1,400 satellites, up from roughly 1,300 launched during the previous year.1 The increase in video demand led to an exponential growth in internet data traffic. Such growth needs to be supported by a solid network meant to reduce loads on existing satellites, in particular, the ones located in densely populated areas.
Satellite constellations make use of multiple satellites to cover extensive parts of the globe. Such extension becomes wider the further such satellites get. These can be located within low earth orbits (“LEO”, at an altitude of 160km to 2,000km) or medium earth orbits (“MEO”, at 2,000km – 36,000 km). LEOs are generally used by internet service providers, while TV satellite dishes make use of fixed satellites, located within Geostationary Orbit (GEO) at a position of 36,000km above Earth.
Space junk as a threat to space operations
Space junk includes inactive satellites as big as cars or as small as flakes of paint. Such objects can move at a speed of approximately 28,000km per hour, turning them into dangerous projectiles. While objects in lower orbits burn up while re-entering into the atmosphere, debris or satellites located at altitudes of 36,000km or more, continue rotating round the globe indefinitely. Space junk may also be the result of collisions or anti-satellite tests in orbit smashing apart into thousands of pieces. Although not a frequent occurrence, countries such as the USA, China and India have used missiles to destroy their own satellites. This creates thousands of pieces of dangerous debris, and poses a danger to other satellites in orbit, with their operators having to perform hundreds of collision avoidance manoeuvres.
The European Space Agency (ESA), estimates that around 900,000 objects measuring between 1 and 10cm are in orbit, and around 34,000 are larger than 10cm.
The ESA classifies Space Debris as follows:
- Payload: Mainly satellites (including wear and tear and collisions generated fragments)
- Rockets: Remains of stages used to propel missions in orbit. This also includes fragments produced by wear and tear and collisions.
- Mission-related objects: Such as dropped tools, screws, cables, cameras, etc.
By size, space waste is classified as follows:
- Less than 1cm: over 128 million (majority are undetectable)
- Between 1 and 10 cm: around 900,000 in orbit
- More than 10 cm: including tools lost during missions to defunct satellites.
How can the space junk threat be neutralised?
The solution must be a long-term and sustainable one. There are multiple solutions including the removal of dead satellites from orbit by dragging them back into the atmosphere, where they will burn up. This could be done by using harpoons or magnets to grab a satellite. Although these methods are useful for large satellites, the same cannot be said for smaller pieces of debris such as fragments of paint and metal.
What is definitely needed is a common approach by all space regulators. Sustainable (debris and traffic) management aspects are inter-connected and must be tackled holistically, and in a uniform manner by all States and private entities involved in space activities.
The USA and Europe have started adopting a number of space traffic management (STM) initiatives. The ESA commissioned the world’s first space debris removal programme called ClearSpace1 which is planned for launch in 2025. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (“UNCOPUOS”) Scientific and Technical Subcommittee adopted 21 Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities. This is a non-binding instrument which, unfortunately, did not attract international consensus, allegedly because it was not able to deal with issues connected with the globalisation and diversification of space activities.
Earlier this year, the Government of Malta released the National Space Strategy, indicating the Government’s commitment towards the creation of a new pillar of the Maltese economy. The Strategy takes stock of various initiatives already undertaken in Malta within this sector, contextualising the introduction of a space economy through a distinct reference to upstream and downstream activities.
The National Space Strategy 2022 is driven by a set of thematic goals, covering the relevant themes which are deemed to be critical for the successful achievement of the space strategy vision: achieving sustainable economic growth through space activities; supporting the research community; developing human capital; enhancing societal well-being; and improving the regulatory and legislative framework. Amongst the different topics analysed, Sustainable Space Management Activities (Debris and Traffic Management Activities) rightly takes a primary role in the goals set up by the Maltese government. The exploitation of space resources cannot ignore the necessity to protect the environment, including space orbits. We cannot afford repeating the same mistakes committed on Earth.
Notwithstanding its negligible size, Malta can play an active role in such process - starting from the drafting of new laws regulating space activities and by voicing its opinion through international fora, in particular the ones of UNCOPUOS and ESA. During the 1970s, Malta gave a tangible contribution to the drafting of the Convention of the Law of the Seas (1982 Montego Bay Convention), with the introduction of principles which are also found in the conventions regulating space activities. Malta has a role to play by adopting laws and policies supporting operators who prioritise sustainable solutions, such as the launch of multipurpose satellites and the design of space objects having a minimal impact on our environment. Such initiatives could be complemented by governance principles balancing economic growth with safeguarding the environment.
 How many satellites are orbiting Earth?