A LEO space collision will create legal headaches

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Imagine this a year or two from now: Elon Musk has 20,000-30,000 of his Starlink satellites in orbit. And the Chinese have launched the bulk of their 13,000 Guowang LEOs. Canada’s Telesat has 300 in orbit, while OneWeb has placed its initial 650 craft and is beginning to launch second-generation satellites. Meanwhile, an as yet unquantified European LEO scheme has begun to populate space with its fleet of satellites.

Each of these constellations have a specific orbital height which must be strictly followed. But satellites will decay in orbit, and some might inevitably malfunction. At the same time, new batches will be launched into orbit to replace those that have been lost. These mostly get launched to lower orbits and then use on-board thrusters to transfer to their nominated orbital positions.

The end results, say some experts, is an increasingly congested zone for Low Earth orbiting satellites. With increased congestion comes the risk of collision. Tanishka Goswami and Shikhar Aggarwal, both students at Delhi’s National Law University, in a paper published May 31st in the University of Pittsburgh’s Jurist publication, say the risks of collision are escalating and there is little or no legal agreement in international law or even dependable agreements in what the authors describe as “space traffic management”.

A recent – although disputed – event reportedly saw a SpaceX Starlink come a little too close to a OneWeb craft.

They say: “The absence of guidelines or any binding framework to manage space traffic and allocation of orbital slots in the LEO for mega-constellations has intensified the ultra-hazardous nature of outer space activities.”

There is a potential agreement in place: the so-called ‘Outer Space Treaty’ (OST) created back in 1967 when in Article VI it obligates an appropriate State to ensure authorisation and continuing supervision over space activities of non-governmental entities. But the treaty doesn’t define any of these concepts. States have enacted national space legislation defining the scope of their jurisdiction, and establishing authorisation and supervision regimes by way of licensing and regulatory mechanisms. And space usage has moved on from the embryonic days of 1967!

The authors call for an urgent review of existing treaties and what they describe as “soft laws” currently in force, and for the removal of tensions caused by the launch, deployment, and operation of mega-constellations [which] can be resolved through improved inter-State coordination and clarity in national regulatory frameworks.”


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