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      A new era of space activities is unfolding before all mankind. As we advance in our space endeavours and venture farther out into the stars, a question arises, do we have the space to continue? With governmental, commercial, private and public space actors launching space objects into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) and beyond, more and more space objects begin to accumulate. The accumulation of space objects poses a threat to the space environment as well as its actors in the form of space debris. The purpose of this research paper is to contribute in defining the term space debris in relation to the term space object, using the United Nations Treaties  and the  Inter-Agency Space Debris coordination Committee (IADC) guidelines. With efforts to state that space debris derives from a space object, which States parties are liable for the activities and actions of their registered space object. The reason why defining the legal terms space debris and space objects is of utmost importance to the international space community and all mankind is because of the growing conversation and efforts to mitigate and clean up space. In the United Nations Outer Space treaty a space object is defined as an “object and its component parts”(Article VII)(16) and establishes that the state of registry is liable for any damages caused to another state party. Space debris in turn is the component parts or break up of a space object in orbit, so why aren’t states being held liable for their space objects and its component parts? The problem it would seem as addressed by Jakhu (5) is in defining the legal terms used as there is no short fall of systems for identifying and tracking these objects in their various orbits. 


Historical context of space debris 

      The problem of space debris began in the 1960’s and continues to be a problem to this day. One of the earliest examples of space debris - addressed as orbital debris at the time- derives from the U.S transit 4-A satellite which exploded and produced 294 traceable pieces on June 29th 1961, tripling the previous amount identified at the time (7). NASA has accounted for 37 years of space debris events and continues to actively record such events. It is important to note that not all space debris created are results of accidental explosions, and unintentional breakups. Many of these objects have been intentionally discarded and launched for the purposes of achieving a scientific objective or as part of the orbital objects mission design. For instance when the NASA space shuttle (21) separates from its external tank leaving it to either burn up on reentry into Earth's atmosphere, potentially landing in the Pacific Ocean or discarding it in orbit subjecting it to continuous solar heating which produces space debris through breakup and corrosion (18). Although this process is part of the mission it would seem to be one of the main issues of why space debris is so abundant in orbit. In 1995 the United States released an interagency report on orbital debris, in efforts to find better ways to monitor orbital debris at the time. Consistently the report states, “Contributions to the current debris environment continue to be essentially proportional to the level of space activity by a given spacefaring nation.” (3). This Statement acknowledges  the activities of space faring nations and addresses the “intentional-unintentional” contribution to space debris in orbit. Technological advances have been made by new commercial space actors to overcome the problem of adding debris to the space environment. This is being accomplished by innovating reusable space technologies so that missions can be achieved cheaper and with less effect to the space environment. SpaceX is leading in this initiative with its FALCON 9 rocket making it the first reusable orbital rocket (19). Spacex reusable rockets achieve their purpose by sending their payload into space and safely returning to a barge located off the coast of its designated launch sight. By innovating reusable space objects and technologies it allows some time to address the effects of the past posed by previous missions that pose a threat to the future. Action has been taken by The United Nations, international governmental space agencies and space organizations alike to help overcome the problem of space debris through tracking efforts as well as Advancements being made in creating space objects with the objective of collecting and cleaning up orbit.


      As stated by JAKHU the problem is still the legal framework not establishing a legal definition of the term space debris. Currently there are various other terms used to address the discarded component parts of man-made objects orbiting space, these included but are not limited to; “Space Junk”, “orbital debris”, “debris object”, and “man-made space debris”. The most commonly used are “orbital debris” and “space debris”.  These terms are not legally defined in any of the United Nations Outer Space treaties nor in the principles. Attempts have been made to define the term space debris by the IADC, however, these terms and guidelines are not legally binding. What is in fact legally defined is the term "space object". This term is used throughout the United Nations Outer Space Treaties and principles to establish jurisdiction of a space object to a state, in the event damage occurs to another state party's space object.  In defining this term there are also implications that help define the term space debris without any use of the term space debris mentioned.  The term referred to is “its component parts”. Referring to the component parts of a space object (Article VII). Moving forward we will be addressing the uses of the term "space object" and its component parts used in the Five main United Nations Outer Space Treaties, as well as addressing the United Nations non-official definition of space debris and comparing it to its legal counterpart.  

       The United Nations Treaties Governing the uses of Outer space are the Legal guidelines that establish the legal responsibility and liability in using Outer Space and other Celestial Bodies. The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space established in 1961 is a United Nations established system which is used to identify which States' bear international responsibility and liability for space objects (16). This system is also a means of establishing who pays the bill in the event of damage caused by a state's registered space object. It is a key component to the United Nations Treaties. The first mention of a space object is in Article IV which states “... not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear or any other weapons of mass destruction...” this article establishes that weaponized space objects are prohibited in the peaceful uses of outer space. There are currently debates on the uses of space debris mitigation objects being used to potentially harm other space objects. Technology needs to advance as to not have these objects considered a threat or weapon to other space objects.

      In ARTICLE VI it states that “ States to the treaty shall bear international responsibility or national activities in outer space…” This statement does not directly use the term space object but it is important to note that states are responsible for the activities that they conduct in space. Reiterating to my point of the disposal of the space shuttle's external tank. States are aware of their activities in space and are therefore liable for their actions referring to whatever they may be.

      ARTICLE VII establishes that the launching state is “..internationally liable for damage to another state party to the treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the earth, in air, or in outer space…” This is the first example of the term component parts being used to establish liability to the launching state. In this article it is important to note not only is it addressing the whole of a space object but also acknowledges the probability of that object breaking into other component parts which could affect other objects. 

      ARTICLE VIII  states that “A state party to the treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object…” This establishes the claim that space debris which derives from a space object remains under the jurisdiction of its launching state. Since the launching state is liable for its space objects or its component parts (16). Continuing with the second United Nation Outer Space Treaty- Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. The purpose of this treaty was to give further concrete expressions of the duties agreed upon to promote international cooperation.

      ARTICLE 5 of this treaty established that in the event that a space object or its component parts landed in any place not under jurisdiction of any state to inform the launching authority as well as the Secretary- General of the United Nations. It also establishes that any “expenses incurred in fulfilling obligations to recover and return space objects or its component parts under paragraphs 2 and 3 of this article shall be borne by the launching state.” This is where the liability convention and registry of objects comes into play as a platform to mitigate these transactions as well as enforce the liability and agreements made by the state in accordance with the United Nations Outer Space Treaties. 

      The Third treaty is the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. This treaty actively defines the term space object as follows, “ The term “space object” includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof.” this definition is agreed upon by all signatory states that have signed this treaty. This treaty goes into detail regarding the legal process that states need to take in settling disputes between other states in the event that their space object damages another state's space object.

      The fourth treaty is the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. This treaty addresses points addressed in the previous treaties in more detail, it also goes on to define the term space object the same way as mentioned in the previous treaty. It established in detail the procedure for registering space objects and tracking efforts.

      Specifically ARTICLE IV states that “each state of registry shall notify the Secretary General of the United Nations to the greatest extent feasible and as soon as practicable, of a space objects concerning which it has previously transmitted information and which have been but no longer are in earth orbit.'' This article could be considered the guidelines for establishing space debris  or more specifically objects that have completed their mission objective and are moved into higher orbits or prepared for reentry into the earth's atmosphere.

      ARTICLE VI of this treaty also establishes the responsibilities of each state in cooperation efforts to track and monitor their space objects.

      The fifth Treaty is the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies. This treaty establishes that the moon is the province of all man-kind and that activities conducted on the resurface and any trajectories around it should reflect international law.

      ARTICLE 3 states that, “It is likewise prohibited to use the Moon in order to commit any such act or engage in any such threat in relation to the Moon, spacecraft, the personnel of spacecrafts or man made space objects.” Similarly to the first Outer Space Treaties Space objects are not to be used to engage in acts of violence that could treat mankind and its peaceful uses of outer space.

      ARTICLE 11 goes on to state that the moon is” not subject to national appropriation” and that the “placement of space vehicles, equipment, facilities stations and installations on or above the service of the moon” does not lead to claim  ownership of the Moon.

       ARTICLE 12 does state that states do retain jurisdiction and control over their personeel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities stations and installations on the Moon.” Establishing the continuous notion of responsibility for state actions and their space object irrespective to where they are in outer space as well as the founding principle of cooperation in outer space the Moon and other Celestial bodies.  


      All of the articles cited from the five main United Nation Outer Space Treaties have been cited to bring awareness and a new viewpoint of the uses of the term space object or its component parts and its potential relation to the term space debris. With hopes that legal efforts will be made to apply stricter liability to states for their space objects and component parts with respect to the efforts being made to mitigate space debris and orbit clean up efforts so that outer space can continue to be used for the peaceful purposes of all mankind for centuries to come. 


     The IADC is an international governmental committee consisting of ten member states. Together with collaboration and efforts with the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) they created the IADC Space Debris mitigation guidelines with the purpose of “preventing on-orbit break-ups, removing spacecraft and orbital stages that have reached the end of their mission operations from the useful densely populated orbit regions, and limiting the objects released during normal operations.'' These principles are active in all the IADC space debris guidelines from the 2007 to 2020 revisions and support guidelines. 

      Something that is important to consider, while the IADC is an established and respected committee A guideline is not a law or regulation (4). Therefore states are not legally responsible to strictly follow these guidelines as they are “encouraged” to apply these guidelines to their mission planning and objectives with efforts to limit the generation of space debris. 

The IADC actively defines the term space debris as such; “Space debris are all man made objects including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, that are non functional.”  This IADC definition of space debris is in reference to the UNCOPUOS Technical Report on Space Debris. In full the Committee defines space debris   “Space debris are all man-made objects, including their fragments and parts, whether their owners can be identified or not, in Earth orbit or re-entering the dense layers of the atmosphere that are non-functional with no reasonable expectation of their being able to assume or resume their intended functions or any other functions for which they are or can be authorized.” (pg 2) at the time this definition was not agreed upon through state consensus. However since the IADC is an international committee consisting of 11 member states with relation to the United Nation it is safe to say that this could be considered the nonlegal agreed upon definition for space debris.

      The IADC further goes on to define the efforts to prevent the releases of space objects whether it is  intentionally or unintentionally done during space missions in the 2014 Support to the IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. This document was established to further the understanding of the 2007 IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. In relation to mission related objects the IADC establishes recommendations for the intentional release of objects to be considered in the states mitigation design. It also states the recommendation for mission objects released unintentionally should be considered in the planning and testing of design robustness. These guidelines are recommendations for state actors to consider when designing and launching their intended space objects into space to reduce the number of debris in orbit. 

      The IADC does not specifically define the term space object the same way the United Nations but does define the three terms commonly known for conducting space activities. These are spacecraft, launch vehicle, and launch vehicle orbital stages. As directly sourced from the IADC; 

-Spacecraft ⎯ an orbiting object designed to perform a specific function or mission (e.g. communications, navigation or Earth observation). A spacecraft that can no longer fulfil its intended mission is considered nonfunctional. (Spacecraft in reserve or standby modes awaiting possible reactivation are considered functional.) 

-Launch vehicle – any vehicle constructed for ascent to outer space, and for placing one or more objects in outer space, and any sub-orbital rocket. 

-Launch vehicle orbital stages ⎯ any stage of a launch vehicle left in Earth orbit. (4) One can derive from the IADC definition of “spacecraft” that  when defining the status of  spacecraft non functional the spacecraft is then to be considered space debris as defined by combining both definitions by the IADC. 



      To conclude, both the United Nations and the IADC have established defining principles to help states follow in the uses of outer space. Together they have defined terms related to the activities and uses of outer space, and have helped  promote efforts to deal with issues regarding space objects activities and space debris mitigation processes. Although there is still yet to be a consensus to legally define space debris and any liability specifically towards it, our founding legal Treaties continue to serve their goal of contributing to international cooperation, understanding and the further advancements of the peaceful exploration and uses of outer space. From the knowledge acquired the assumption can be made that space objects irrespective of their mission objectives contribute in creating space debris as they are in turn the producers of such objects. And states as legally stated and agreed in the United Nations treaty are to be held responsible and liable for their space object and component parts.

      The IADC states that space mission plans include the act of disposing of their space objects, states are fully aware of the responsibility they hold over those objects and its component parts. 

The agreed upon terms are:

-Space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof.

-Space debris are all man-made objects including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, that are non functional.

Both objects are man-made objects. Space debris is an international problem that we have all contributed to and that it is our responsibility to adopt appropriate measures as to not harm the earth and its orbit. 

The research conducted and stated in this paper is for the purpose of further defining the term space debris in relation to the term space object. 



  1. AstriaGraph an active space object tracker 

  2. Active debris removal. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from

  3. Interagency Report on Orbital Debris, 1995. .

  4. IADC SPACE DEBRIS MITIGATION GUIDLINES -all four guidelines and supporting guidelines used

  5. Jakhu, R.S., Pelton, J.N., Global Space Governance: An International Study, Springer, 2017, Chapter 14 (on Space Debris Removal) Pages,342-344.

  6. Loftus, Joseph P, Anz-Meador, Philip D, & Reynolds, Robert. (1993). Orbital debris minimization and mitigation techniques. Advances in Space Research, 13(8), 263-282.

  7. Portree, Davis S. F, & Loftus, Joseph P., Jr. (1999). Orbital Debris: A Chronology. Orbital Debris: A Chronology.

  8. 3, D., & Finkleman, D. (2015, August 10). Letter: 25-year Orbit Disposal Guideline Poorly Cast. Retrieved August 05, 2020, from Used to establish credibility of the IADC guidelines


  10. Dennerley, J. A. (2018). State Liability for Space Object Collisions: The Proper Interpretation of ‘Fault’ for the Purposes of International Space Law. European Journal of International Law, 29(1), 281-301.

  11. Jasentuliyana, N., International Space Law and the United Nations, Klumer Law international, 1999, Chapter 13 (on Space Debris) 

  12. Mitigating space debris generation. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2020, from

  13. Munoz-Patchen, C. (2018). Regulating the Space Commons: Treating Space Debris as Abandoned Property in Violation of the Outer Space Treaty. Chicago Journal of International Law, 19(1), 233-259.

  14. National Regulation of Space Activities Jakhu, Ram S. (Ed.) Covers comprehensively all aspects of national space law and regulations in over fifteen space-faring nations

  15. RESOLUTION ADOPTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2777 (XXVI). Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects  Page 25- 28

  16. United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space


  18. United Nations. General Assembly. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Scientific Technical Subcommittee. (1999). Technical report on space debris : Text of the report adopted by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. New York: United Nations.

  19. spaceX falcon 9

  20. “Space Junk with Moriba Jah: Air and Space Live Chat”

  21. The External Tank space shuttle information 

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