At the speed of 22,000 miles per hour, even a centimeter-long piece of metal can cause significant damage to a large spacecraft. And according to NASA, there are about 500,000 such pieces of space junk orbiting our planet. While the United States is undoubtedly the leading player in space, other countries are slowly gaining importance, and an international code of conduct regulating outer space is urgently needed.
The most significant legislative document that has so far been proposed is the EU Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities – but the compact is completely voluntary and non-binding. One of the primary principles it upholds is the right of countries to self-defense. The Code states that nations should “refrain from any action which… [damages] space objects unless such action… is justified by the inherent right of individual or collective self defense or by imperative safety considerations.” Among its main recommendations is the stipulation that signatory countries register their space objects and notify other countries of space ventures. It also includes a clause for members to voluntarily set up ad hoc consultation mechanisms and fact-finding missions—but these are meant to be advisory and non-binding as well.
The majority of countries with space programs, such as Australia, Canada and Japan, have accepted the EU proposal, but the BRIC nations have stayed far away: they were not consulted in its drafting and thus fear compliance could limit their future space ventures. China and Russia have even drafted an alternate, legally binding draft outlawing the weaponization of space, but the bill faces fierce opposition on the basis that it is unverifiable.
Last month, the US Secretary of State announced that the US would begin working on an international code of conduct to address space junk and “irresponsible actors” – which likely refers to China’s actions in 2007, when it destroyed an inactive weather satellite with a rocket. While these are arguably the most important issues to be addressed in outer space law, there are numerous others. For instance, the current requirement that all geostationary satellites must orbit within a single zone above the Equator has already led to numerous conflicts between countries. Space law is yet in its infancy, but it must grow rapidly if it is to meet the changing needs of our time.