Sanya D. Kishwar* and Shivansh Nangia**

This is a two-part blog. The authors discuss the ramifications of space debris as an environmental pollutant in the first part. The second part discusses the international legal framework with recommendations. 

Key Words: Cosmos 2251 – Iridium 33 – Liability Convention – Space station – Stray satellites 

Part I: Ramifications of Space Debris as an Environmental Pollutant


From the failed launch of the Thor-Ablestar that got dismantled over Cuba and ended up butchering the famous cow “Ruhina” to the relatively recent crash of a Chinese March 3B rocket Booster which crashed into a village, spreading toxic fumes and destroying homes, accidents caused by falling space debris are in abundance. These unfortunate events are not rare occurrences. In May 2020, debris from a Chinese Rocket’s failed re-entry fell into villages on the Ivory Coast. More recently, in July 2022, debris crashed into the Indian Ocean. Though the exact repercussions of the crash are yet to be quantified, subsequent pieces of said debris were found dangerously close to villages in Borneo. With over 630 explosions, collisions, and other unplanned events since 1957, more than 100 million objects have been categorised as space debris that can cause serious unforeseen damage.

The UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has set the first internationally accepted definition of space debris as “all man-made objects, including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, that are non-functional”. Johnson argues that the definition also encompasses leaking fuel and coolant droplets since they can be extremely dangerous at such high speeds. We face a plethora of legal and social problems when it comes to space debris management. The lack of a universally agreed upon definition of environmental pollutant makes it difficult to classify which forms of space debris could be classified as a pollutant. The fact that we have not yet formed cohesive jurisprudence on debris management adds to the problem. As of now, a majority of the debris management task is left upon the Earth’s atmosphere, which naturally pulls orbiting debris downward and incinerates it into the thicker lower atmosphere. However, increasing carbon dioxide levels are lowering the density of the upper atmosphere, which may diminish this effect, creating an increased need for human intervention in space debris management.

Ramifications of Space Debris on the environment 

With an increasing quest for scientific breakthroughs, nations across the globe are constantly competing. Space research is one such area that attracts both developed and developing countries. Unlike earlier times, space research is being commercialised, and according to the Global Risks Report published in 2022, this has created crowding and competition in space. For comparison, one could understand the Low Earth Orbit (‘LEO’) as a market space and the satellites (communication, expeditionary or otherwise) as the product choices available for consumer consumption. Here, consumer consumption could be equated with the benefits satellites provide, such as communication, television and broadcasting, and weather prediction. The more satellites a country launches, its control over the space market grows stronger. With an increasing number of developing countries launching satellites successfully, developed countries have also resorted to competitive multi-satellite launches. With more than one satellite being launched at one time, the LEO is now heavily crowded. Many of these satellites fail to return to the Earth’s surface and stray in the LEO or the orbit and enter the non-LEO zones. In both cases, satellites are contaminants in space. The United States Space Surveillance Network has tracked more than 15,000 pieces of space debris measuring larger than 10 cm and 20,00,000 pieces measuring between 1 and 10 cm. As of 2021, they estimate a potential presence of a million debris pieces lesser than 1 cm in size. The Department of Defence’s Space Surveillance Network has tracked 27,000 particles of “spacejunk” till 2022. 

A 1 cm object can penetrate the pressurised crew module of a space station, kill the crew and cause the station to break up, pierce the window of a craft, and disable or destroy a satellite. In contrast, 0.5 mm fragment can puncture a suit and kill an astronaut. Given the threats such space debris particles pose, it is important to determine the scope and extent of the launching state’s liability. This is particularly important when such objects contribute to pollution in both space and Earth’s atmosphere. For instance, when the Russian navigation satellite Cosmos1934 collided with debris from another Russian rocket body, both objects belonged to the same state. The impact of the collision was such that it created thousands of new debris pieces in space. These debris pieces pose a potential collision threat to future objects launched by Russia as well as other countries. In this case, since the satellite that was destroyed and the object that caused its destruction belonged to the same country, the question of liability and compensation was in the backseat. In 2009, a US-owned satellite Iridium-33 collided with a defunct Russian military satellite, Cosmos 2251. This collision resulted in hundreds of pieces of larger, traceable debris and is considered the worst satellite breakup, the effects of which continue to be felt. Situations like this demand determination of liability of the launching state for harm sustained by space objects of other states. Internationally, this is governed by the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects 1971 (Liability Convention). 

Article II of the Liability Convention recognises an absolute liability of the launching state to pay compensation for the “damage caused by its space object on the surface of the earth or to aircraft flight.” However, the Convention is silent on the liability of the launching state when it’s space object damage another natural space object, with resultant debris particles causing potential threats in both outer space and Earth’s atmosphere. The authors suggest that besides requiring one state to compensate the other, there should also be a determination of state responsibility and consequential liability for creating pollution. Closely investigating the reasons for such collisions would be helpful in concluding the proportion of each state’s contribution and resultant liability to clean up such pollution.  

Article III of the Liability Convention stipulates liability determination on the basis of fault when the damage is caused by space object of one launching state to a space object of another launching State elsewhere than on the surface of the Earth or, to persons or property on board such a space object. However, it is important to note that the Convention does not clarify whether space debris pollution would be considered a fault in space for the purpose of liability determination. Moreover, the liability for damage is confined to space objects and person or property of other States. The consequential damage to outer space environment due to collision of space objects is not addressed under this provision.

In the absence of liability for abandoning the satellites after they become defunct, the number of stray satellites is increasing. This leads to an increased risk of their collision with active satellites, other stray satellites as well as natural space objects. Such collisions contribute not only to pollution in terms of emissions but also in terms of light pollution. Intense light is emitted by such collisions that would not have happened but for the stray satellites. This causes hindrances for scientists who are observing space from the Earth. 

Besides being a space contaminant, a stray satellite also acts as a creator of more such contaminants. Stray satellites without any way to steer onto a steadier orbital path have an increased chance of careening into other orbiting objects, be it another satellite or a piece of debris. This catalyses the cycle of debris generation. Furthermore, the remains of such objects, after a collision, might get accumulated in the lower space sphere, with the possibility of their escape into the upper atmosphere, resulting in reduced capacity of the upper atmosphere to absorb the harmful solar radiations. From a commercial perspective, such continued competitive launching by countries would result in a potential monopoly on the LEO, which would severely hamper the continuation of scientific research for the sole purpose of benefit of humankind. 

In summary, even though space debris has not been recognized as an environmental pollutant, its interaction with other objects could potentially lead to pollution in outer space as well as on the Earth surface. Therefore, it is important to have a legal regulation in place in this regard. In the next part, the authors will critically analyses the existing legal frameworks on outer space while presenting recommendations to reduce the impact of space debris pollution.

* Lecturer, Jindal Global Law School, O. P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.

** Student, LL.B. (Hons.), Jindal Global Law School, O. P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.

Unraveling the Space Debris Enigma

Geetanjali R Kamat*

Key Words: Space debris; Sustainability; Non-binding mitigation guidelines; COPUOS; Standardization

The twenty-first century is witnessing the emergence of a new era with countries striving to leave their mark in outer space. With more nations willing to compete in the global space race, the future of space exploration looks promising. At the same time, countries are increasingly becoming concerned of the consequences of such activities on the space and the earth’s environment. One such issue is that of “space debris” – a topic which has been subject to years of scientific research and several discussions. In May 2021, the debris from China’s Long March-5B rocket, used to launch its new space station (Tiangong), crashed into the Indian Ocean near Maldives.[ii] Although instances of space debris resulting in damage to spacecrafts, or territories on the earth’s surface are not unprecedented, this incident reiterated the absence of binding international law regarding space debris.

Legal Regime

Presently, international space law requires States to (a) bear international responsibility for conducting national activities in outer space[iii]; and (b) return space objects, if found within their territory, to the state of registry.[iv] In terms of liability, a “launching state” is absolutely liable for damage caused to another State, by its space object, on the earth’s surface or to aircraft in flight.[v] However, in case of damage caused by a space object of one launching state to a space object, or to a person or property on board a space object of another launching state in outer space or in airspace, a fault-based standard of liability will be imposed on the former.[vi]

Apart from the Outer Space Treaty and the Liability Convention, we have bodies such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (hereinafter ‘IADC’) and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (hereinafter ‘COPUOS’), along with national and international space agencies, working on this problem. In 2002, IADC issued the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines (hereinafter ‘IADC Guidelines’), focusing on aspects such as minimizing the potential for on-orbit break-ups and post-mission disposal.[vii] In 2004, the European Space Agency and the national space agencies of France, Germany, the UK, and Italy adopted the European Code of Conduct for Space Debris Mitigation (hereinafter ‘the European Code of Conduct’), which is in alignment with the IADC Guidelines. Apart from providing for management measures, such as the appointment of the ‘Space Debris Manager’, the European Code of Conduct consists of design and operational measures for space debris mitigation.[viii] Similarly, using the IADC Guidelines as a starting point, COPUOS endorsed certain guidelines (hereinafter ‘the COPUOS Guidelines’) in 2007. Given the non-binding nature of the COPUOS Guidelines, member States were expected to implement “national mechanisms” with an objective to enforce space debris mitigation procedures.


International responsibility

The Outer Space Treaty is guided by principles of co-operation and mutual assistance whereby all outer space activities are to be carried out with “due regard” to the corresponding interests of other member States.[ix] Therefore, the freedom of scientific investigation must be balanced with the larger interests of the international space community. Further, a member State is entitled to request consultation concerning the outer space activity with another member State if it has “reason to believe” that such activity would cause potentially harmful interference with the peaceful exploration of outer space.[x] While a member State is, in theory, permitted to exercise such a diplomatic tool, the extent of its enforceability and the effectiveness of such dialogue are uncertain.

Space sustainability

Another important facet of the international approach to long-term sustainability of space activities includes the comprehensive set of standards provided by the International Organization for Standardization (hereinafter  ‘the ISO Standards’). The ISO Standards specify prudent measures for designing and operating spacecrafts in a safe manner with an objective to prevent creation of space debris. In the past, the ISO Standards have benefitted Ukraine, which used these standards to conduct space debris mitigation evaluations of its launch vehicle systems.[xi] Therefore, it is crucial that States strictly comply with the ISO Standards or alternatively, formulate their own measures to implement a procedural framework for space debris mitigation which regulates different stages of space systems. However, if States adopt vastly different standards, this may potentially lead to inconsistent compliance and varying interpretation of “sufficient” space debris mitigation measures.

Way Forward

Incentivizing space debris mitigation

In a welcome move, the ‘Global Future Council on Space Technologies’ has developed the concept of Space Sustainability Rating (hereinafter ‘Sustainability Rating’), which is expected to come into effect early next year. The Sustainability Rating seeks to encourage responsible behaviour in outer space by increasing the transparency of the debris mitigation efforts.[xii] There is a possibility that in the near future, rankings in terms of Sustainability Ratings may even provide a hierarchy of “ethical spacefaring nations” and incentivize States to pay greater attention to space debris mitigation.

Liability Convention

It is a generally agreed principle that damage to the outer space environment does not directly fall within the scope of the Liability Convention.[xiii] Accordingly, accidents which occur due to a space object, either in outer space, to an aircraft in flight, or on the earth’s surface, warrant a separate framework for assessing “damage” and providing “standards of liability”. It is prudent that a stricter framework for liability pertaining to the outer space environment, which also provides for reasonable exceptions, should be drafted in order to enforce an otherwise soft law. Another question worth considering is the stage at which States ought to be held accountable for undertaking space exploration activities in a reckless manner. Instead of risking damage to lives and property owing to an unpredictable trajectory, there should be a uniform mechanism for settling apprehensions in this regard.

Steps taken by India

The Indian Space Research Organization has been an active member of IADC since 1996. As of June 2021, India is in the process of formally adopting a national mechanism on space debris mitigation and strengthening the domestic requirements for Indian entities.[xiv] In the same month, the Department of Space circulated the Draft National Space Transportation Policy, 2020, (hereinafter ‘the NSTP’) for public comments.[xv] The pro forma for obtaining authorizations for launches and sub-orbital launches in the NSTP requires the relevant launching entity to provide a “space debris mitigation plan”. Thus, the fact that applicants are required to provide their “space debris mitigation plans” signifies the proactive approach by the Indian government towards minimization of space debris.

Periodic updates

The existing standards and guidelines in respect of space debris mitigation are revised on a periodic basis to accommodate new developments in this regard. For instance, the IADC Guidelines were revised in June 2021 to provide clarifications on parameters such as operational phases and re-entry risks. Similarly, the ISO Standards were revised in July 2019. Hence, it is crucial that countries also make corresponding revisions to their national policies and frameworks concerning mitigation of space debris and implement effective measures.

Concluding Remarks

Currently, there is no internationally binding treaty on space debris. Additionally, existing policies such as the IADC Guidelines, the COPUOS Guidelines and the European Code of Conduct are non-binding and voluntary in nature. The need of the hour is to evaluate the extent to which existing guidelines, standardization measures and best practices, for mitigating space debris, have proven to be helpful. If a majority of States have enforced useful robust national mechanisms, these guidelines may well have succeeded. However, in case these have been inadequate or unclear, a binding international legal instrument which would tackle such a problem in a uniform and coherent manner will need to be implemented. At the same time, one cannot lose sight of the fact that adopting mitigation measures, including compliance with the ISO Standards, may involve complex technology and high costs. Accordingly, the binding legal framework, if it were to be created, must uphold the overarching fundamentals of space law – principles of equality and non-discrimination.

[i] Geetanjali R Kamat is an Ex-Associate at Touchstone Partners and Founder-Editor at IRCCL


[ii] See Last visited, 23 July 2021.

[iii] Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty) 1967, Art. VI.

[iv] Outer Space Treaty, Art. VIII.

[v] Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (Liability Convention) 1972, Art. II.

[vi] Liability Convention, Art. III.

[vii] See Last visited, 24 July 2021.

[viii]  See Last visited, 30 July 2021.

[ix] Outer Space Treaty, Art. IX.


[xi] See Last visited, 24 July 2021.

[xii] See Last visited, 25 July 2021.

[xiii] See Last visited, 24 July 2021.

[xiv] See Last visited, 24 July 2021.

[xv] See Last visited, 23 July 2021.