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Matthew J. Kleiman, Jenifer K. Lamie, and Maria-Vittoria “Giugi” Carminati are the coauthors of The Laws of Spaceflight: A Guidebook for New Space Lawyers, which will be published by the ABA this summer.
Adapted from The Laws of Spaceflight: A Guidebook For New Space Lawyers
From Earth, outer space seems like an endless expanse. It can be hard to believe that we need to worry about contaminating the outer space environment. Many people once held similar views about the oceans, yet we now know that human activity can have a very detrimental impact on the marine environment. The same is true for outer space. While outer space is vast, the usable regions of outer space are relatively small. Certain regions are already becoming overcrowded. Space operations can also have a detrimental impact on terrestrial environments, both on Earth and on other planetary bodies.
This excerpt discusses the environmental impact of human activities in outer space and the laws, regulations, and standards that attempt to mitigate environmental harm. Specifically, it focuses on the problem of orbital space debris.
Earth orbit is crowded. The US government currently tracks about 22,000 manmade objects in Earth orbit. However, it is estimated that more than 500,000 man-made objects larger than a centimeter, and millions of objects smaller than a centimeter, are currently circling Earth.1 Of these objects, only about 1,000 are operational spacecraft. The rest are dead satellites, discarded equipment, spent rocket boosters, fragments from collisions and explosions, paint chips, and other by-products of human space activities, collectively known as space debris. Space debris in low orbits will eventually succumb to atmospheric drag and reenter Earth’s atmosphere. Most will burn up, but some fragments will survive reentry and strike the ground. Debris in higher orbits will remain in space for hundreds or thousands of years, or even forever.