The following notes are essentially those adopted by a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations in June 2007.
Since the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space published its Technical Report on Space Debris in 1999, it has been a common understanding that the current space debris environment poses a risk to spacecraft in Earth orbit. For the purpose of this document, space debris is defined as all man-made objects, including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, that are non-functional. As the population of debris continues to grow, the probability of collisions that could lead to potential damage will consequently increase. In addition, there is also the risk of damage on the ground, if debris survives Earth's atmospheric re-entry. The prompt implementation of appropriate debris mitigation measures is therefore considered a prudent and necessary step towards preserving the outer space environment for future generations.
Historically, the primary sources of space debris in Earth orbits have been:
Space debris mitigation measures can be divided into two broad categories:
The implementation of space debris mitigation measures is recommended since some space debris has the potential to damage spacecraft, leading to loss of mission, or loss of life in the case of manned spacecraft. For manned flight orbits, space debris mitigation measures are highly relevant due to crew safety implications.
A set of mitigation guidelines has been developed by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), reflecting the fundamental mitigation elements of a series of existing practices, standards, codes and handbooks developed by a number of national and international organizations. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space acknowledges the benefit of a set of high-level qualitative guidelines, having wider acceptance among the global space community. The Working Group on Space Debris was therefore established (by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee) to develop a set of recommended guidelines based on the technical content and the basic definitions of the IADC space debris mitigation guidelines, taking into consideration the United Nations treaties and principles on outer space.
Member States and international organizations should voluntarily take measures, through national mechanisms or through their own applicable mechanisms, to ensure that these guidelines are implemented, to the greatest extent feasible, through space debris mitigation practices and procedures. These guidelines are applicable to mission planning and operation of newly designed spacecraft and orbital stages and, if possible, to existing ones. They are not legally binding under international law. It is also recognized that exceptions to the implementation of individual guidelines or elements thereof may be justified, for example, by the provisions of the United Nations treaties and principles on outer space.
The following guidelines should be considered for the mission planning, design, manufacture and operational (launch, mission and disposal) phases of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages:
Guideline 1: Limit debris released during normal operations
During the early decades of the space age, launch vehicle and spacecraft designers permitted the intentional release of numerous mission-related objects into Earth orbit, including, among other things, sensor covers, separation mechanisms and deployment articles. Dedicated design efforts, prompted by the recognition of the threat posed by such objects, have proved effective in reducing this source of space debris.
Some accidental collisions have already been identified. Numerous studies indicate that, as the number and mass of space debris increase, the primary source of new space debris is likely to be from collisions. Collision avoidance procedures have already been adopted by some Member States and international organizations.
When intentional break-ups are necessary, they should be conducted at sufficiently low altitudes to limit the orbital lifetime of resulting fragments.
By far the largest percentage of the catalogued space debris population originated from the fragmentation of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages. The majority of those break-ups were unintentional, many arising from the abandonment of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages with significant amounts of stored energy. The most effective mitigation measures have been the passivation of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages at the end of their mission. Passivation requires the removal of all forms of stored energy, including residual propellants and compressed fluids and the discharge of electrical storage devices.
When making determinations regarding potential solutions for removing objects from LEO, due consideration should be given to ensure that debris that survives to reach the surface of the Earth does not pose an undue risk to people or property, including through environmental pollution caused by hazardous substances.
The basis for the above guidelines is the IADC space debris mitigation guidelines and other supporting documents, which can be found on the IADC website.
For more on the legal side of these guidelines, refer to the Australian Space Academy's Guide to Space Law.