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Tackling the Space Debris Problem: A Global Commons Perspective

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Abstract

This paper approaches the issue of space debris as a collective action problem in a global commons environment. Based on Elinor Ostrom’s research into commons management, we propose a system of polycentric governance that is no less effective and more politically feasible than the reform or creation of existing institutions like intergovernmental bodies or major treaties. Using Paul Stern’s “adapted design principles” we analyze shortcomings of the current governance structure relating to space debris and derive recommendations. The aim of these is to facilitate communication among governance nodes, empower lower-level decision-making, and build trust among stakeholders.
TACKLING THE SPACE DEBRIS PROBLEM: A GLOBAL
COMMONS PERSPECTIVE
Daniel Lambach(1), Luca Wesel(2)
(1) Research Centre Normative Orders, Goethe University Frankfurt/Main, Max-Horkheimer-Strasse 2,
60629 Frankfurt/Main, Germany, Email: lambach@normativeorders.net
(2)German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 32, 53113 Bonn, Germany,
Email: luca.wesel@giz.de
ABSTRACT
This paper approaches the issue of space debris as a collective action problem in a global commons environment.
Based on Elinor Ostrom’s research into commons management, we propose a system of polycentric governance
that is no less effective and more politically feasible than the reform or creation of existing institutions like
intergovernmental bodies or major treaties. Using Paul Stern’s adapted design principles” we analyze
shortcomings of the current governance structure relating to space debris and derive recommendations. The aim
of these is to facilitate communication among governance nodes, empower lower-level decision-making, and build
trust among stakeholders.
1 INTRODUCTION
The problem of space debris has been well-known among technical experts and the space policy community for
the past three to four decades. And yet, despite mounting pressures on the sustainable use of outer space, very little
progress has been made in tackling this problem. Standards for space debris mitigation are insufficient, there is no
space traffic management in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and active debris removal technologies are only starting to
be tested. This paper takes a political economy perspective to explain why space debris has thus far resisted
attempts to solve or even substantially mitigate the problem. We argue that Elinor Ostrom’s work on the co-
operative governance of shared resources can be applied to space as a global commons and space debris as a
problem of collective action.
We argue that current efforts to remove debris or mitigate its creation are hampered by four mutually reinforcing
hurdles. First, the existing legal framework does not adequately deal with debris and does not allocate
responsibility for the minimization and removal of debris objects. Second, despite improvements in space
situational awareness over the past decades, information about debris objects is still incomplete and insufficiently
precise. Third, costs for debris removal are still relatively high and there is no mechanism how these costs can be
allocated to debris creators. Fourth, there is political resistance owing to the dual use nature of removal
techniques and the economic advantages accruing to countries with lower mitigation standards. These hurdles are
closely interdependent, creating a wicked problem, which has not been appropriately handled by the
international community.
Overcoming the current regulatory deadlock is difficult but possible, especially as the escalating severity of the
problem increases pressures to cooperate. However, a centralized structure, e.g. a new international organization
or treaty, is unlikely to be created. Instead, we draw on Ostrom’s notion of polycentric governance, which we
consider to be more viable. Polycentricity refers to a system consisting of many independent centers of decision-
making that jointly produce governance outputs through cooperation and coordination. Other examples of
polycentric governance at the global level include internet governance which is collectively organized as a network
of lower-level governance arrangements. In contrast to centralized, public forms of governance, polycentric
governance is capable of marshalling different stakeholders and can, in the right circumstances, provide more
effective governance outcomes. We argue that this would also obtain in the field of space debris.
To move towards polycentric governance we offer the following recommendations: for one, create more
governance nodes by empowering lower-level forums and institutions to make decisions about specific issues. For
another, increase the density of linkages among nodes. And finally, create a culture of cooperation among nodes.
More specifically, we have to make the current system of outer space governance less top-heavy and centered
around the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and similar intergovernmental bodies.
One avenue would be to supplement existing institutions with informal deliberative forums and networks to
facilitate multistakeholder engagement, empower lower-level actors, and build trust.
2 THE SPACE DEBRIS PROBLEM
The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) defines space debris as “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
[1:2]. The nature and origin of space debris is diverse, ranging from tiny chipped paint particles to screwdrivers
lost by astronauts during field missions and to uncontrollable satellites whose active mission was terminated.
Following Hall, the origin of individual objects can be divided into three groups: Those that arise as an necessary
byproduct of missions (e.g. rocket stages), others that are generated by accident or oversight, and objects that are
the result of intentional actions such as anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) tests [2:2-5].
2.1 Scope and Impact
When quantifying debris objects, a fundamental distinction must be made between those that are large enough to
be tracked and cataloged, and those that are too small for tracking. The information on the former comes primarily
from the US Space Surveillance Network and similar surveillance efforts, which use powerful radar systems to
permanently monitor about 28,200 objects larger than ten centimeters (as of January 2021). In addition, experts
estimate that there are 900,000 smaller objects (1-10cm), 128 million tiny objects (1mm-1cm) and countless
objects <1mm.
1
The number of satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) has also increased, especially in recent years with the
widespread adoption of microsatellite technology. Figure 1 demonstrates that 2020 alone has seen almost triple
the amount of payload traffic to LEO compared to previous years, which themselves had exceeded earlier periods
by substantial margins. Figure 1 starkly illustrates that satellites have become an important sector of the global
economy and represent a backbone of economic globalization. For example, the terrestrial networks of
communications and digital data transmission rely heavily on satellites. A loss of the satellite infrastructure, even
if only temporary, would have a major impact on many sectors of everyday life.
Figure 1: Payloads to LEO
Source: https://sdup.esoc.esa.int/discosweb/statistics/
Without a robust system of Space Traffic Management (STM) in LEO, the growing number of satellites itself
generates collision risks. At the moment, satellite operators have to organize evasive maneuvers on an ad hoc
bilateral basis and these occur with increasing frequency. Coupled with the growing number of debris fragments,
the carrying capacities of LEO are exhausted, with every further payload adding to the already elevated risk of a
“Kessler syndrome” of cascading collisions [3].
2.2 Tackling the Problem
There are two main strategies for attacking the space debris problem: debris mitigation and active removal. The
first is a preventive measure that seeks to minimize the creation of further debris objects, primarily through
1
https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers.
regulations how space missions and payload must be designed [4:4]. National space agencies have begun to
develop guidelines which provide frameworks for avoiding space debris [5:66-8] and in 1993 set up the Inter-
Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) to coordinate their efforts and exchange information. In
2002, the IADC published a set of guidelines that, while non-binding, were nonetheless an important milestone.
The IADC guidelines served as the basis for the work of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) of
UN COPUOS, which was to formulate global standards for the prevention of space debris. The STSC completed
its work in 2007 with the publication of the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which were ratified by the UN
General Assembly later that same year [6:692]. However, although the Mitigation Guidelines are incorporated into
the mission planning of many space agencies, and some countries even go beyond the guidelines, the UN
requirements are not binding and non-compliance cannot be reviewed or sanctioned. The Mitigation Guidelines’
non-binding legal status has led to a multitude of individual sets of rules by states and private organizations (such
as the ISO) and ambiguity within the space community [5].
While preventive measures aim to prevent the creation of new debris, active debris removal (ADR) refers to all
actions taken to remove existing space debris from space [7:553]. Although there have been discussions about the
ADR’s potential and feasibility for decades, the development of concrete approaches has gained decisive
momentum only in the last 15 years. Models indicate that five to ten major objects would need to be removed from
high-risk LEO regions each year to stabilize the population and mitigate risks of the Kessler syndrome [8].
Moreover, ADR missions must be developed as soon as possible the later they are deployed, the less useful they
will be. Unfortunately, ADR technology is still in the pilot phase, with national space agencies testing a variety of
prototypes in recent and upcoming missions.
In short, international measures to alleviate the space debris problem are insufficient to deal with the ever
escala1ating overcrowding of LEO. Even after decades of knowing about the problem, there is no internationally
binding set of rules that prescribes uniform prevention measures, nor have successful mitigation strategies been
established. ADR technology is still far from being usable at scale.
2.3 Obstacles to Sustainable Management
A key barrier to sustainable LEO use is the multidisciplinary nature of the problem. Dealing with space debris is
a legal, technical, economic, and political challenge. In legal terms, space debris is not covered by the existing
framework of the “Five Treaties”, which offer little guidance for mitigation and removal alike. On the technical
side, while mitigation has seen marked improvements (e.g. through “Design for Demise” guidelines), ADR
systems are still only at a prototype stage, and space surveillance systems are incapable of tracking many smaller
fragments. Economically, there are too few incentives for satellite operators to invest in mitigation. In addition,
developing ADR technology is costly and there are unresolved questions about who should bear these costs [9].
Finally, there are political impediments, such as fears about the dual-use capabilities of ADR technology, gridlock
in international bodies such as UN COPUOS, and diverging policy preferences about mitigation standards.
In the language of public policy, this makes space debris is a “wicked problem” [10]. Wickedness principally
results from three aspects of a problem: a) its complexity, b) the uncertainty relating to risks and consequences of
action, and c) a divergence in viewpoints and values. The worse these aspects are, the more intractable a problem
becomes. We are unlikely to ever get rid of space debris, so the only realistic goal is to aim for a sustainable
management of the problem but at what level of risk and which mechanisms are acceptable for all stakeholders?
These questions have not yet been resolved.
3 THEORY: GOVERNING THE SPACE COMMONS
The wicked and multidisciplinary nature of the space debris problem does not make a resolution impossible, but
it should caution us against monocausal explanations for its intractability. Instead, we argue that the problems
should be approached through the theoretical lens of “commons management” which offers a holistic perspective
as well as examples of sustainable resource management from other fields that might be of use.
3.1 The Space as a Global Commons
The “commons” are a concept from political economy denoting a shared resource with communal ownership. In
contrast to public goods, which can be freely enjoyed by everyone, the commons can be depleted through overuse.
Economic theory argues that this inevitably leads to the “tragedy of the commons” [11] wherein every actor will
try to maximize their individual return at the cost of overusing the common-pool resource. Accordingly,
economists typically recommend that common-pool resources can only be efficiently and sustainably managed
through either their privatization and enclosure or via centralization under the authority of a state. However,
empirical evidence from the “Governing the Commons” project [12] shows that while unregulated commons might
fall prey to this tragedy, communities all over the world have found myriad ways of sustainably governing
common-pool resources like fish stocks, grazing land, or water sources. Hence, Ostrom and her collaborators have
argued that communal, co-operative governance represents a third way of commons management besides
privatization and centralization [12, 13].
However, it is not clear how well these results can be applied to large-scale resources. The case studies of the
“Governing the Commons” project focused on local communities within the framework of states, leading to
questions how to “scale up” the project’s findings [14, 15]. This is where the notion of “global commons”, i.e.
resource domains to which all nations have legal access[16:6] has emerged. Space is one example of a global
commons, with others being the high seas and the seafloor, the poles, and the atmosphere.
The challenge of governing the global commons lies in their scale and their supranational nature. Their immense
scale makes many well-known strategies of commons management unviable, such as the development of
reputation and trust systems as well as the emergence of a shared culture of “commoning” [17]. Their supranational
nature exacerbates the underlying collective action problems. In the absence of a superior political authority, states
face few sanctions for not agreeing to, or not complying with a governance regime [18]. Hence, any analysis of
the global commons must pay attention to issues of power more so than standard approaches to commons
management [19].
3.2 Polycentric Governance
In her late works, Elinor Ostrom argued for systems of “polycentric governance” [13, 20], a concept that has
become very influential in environmental governance [21]. In contrast to hierarchical (“monocentric”) forms of
governance, polycentricity refers to a network of independent nodes that can make decisions independently and
coordinate among themselves to produce a joint output. Polycentric governance can bring together different
stakeholders and under the right circumstances be very effective. This requires that governance nodes are
empowered to make decisions on substantive issues within their sphere of influence (subsidiarity). Furthermore,
connections between nodes need to be increased and strengthened (linkage). Finally, polycentric governance
requires a culture of trust to facilitate communication, cooperation and collaboration among nodes and to improve
information sharing and collective decision-making (self-organization).
If functioning properly, a polycentric system of governance offers several potential advantages over a monocentric
system. First, they are better at accessing distributed knowledge among actors which enhances capabilities for
innovation and learning. Second, polycentric systems are capable of mobilizing a broader variety of stakeholders
and may be seen as more legitimate due to the “liquid” nature of authority [22]. Third, building on the previous
points, polycentric systems may respond quicker to emergencies or changing circumstances and thereby improve
capabilities for adaptation. Fourth, polycentric system are multi-scalar and can integrate and connect actors and
processes from the local to the global level. Finally, a polycentric system of governance may be more politically
feasible than a centralized system within a supranational context, where states are often leery of the introduction
of new international agreements and organizations.
However, not every system that is decentralized is also polycentric. The literature on international environmental
regimes discusses this problem in terms of “fragmentation”, i.e. the emergence of a patchwork of regulations with
little interaction within a regime complex [23]. Decentralized systems need to develop robust linkages among
nodes and a culture of trust. Failure to do so creates key hurdles obstructing the emergence of “true” polycentric
systems in global policy-making.
4 TOWARDS A POLYCENTRIC GOVERNANCE OF LOW-EARTH ORBIT
4.1 Existing Proposals
There are numerous proposals for solving or managing the space debris problem, especially from the academic
community. Some international legal scholars have called for new treaties or significant modifications to existing
ones [24, 25, 26], while others argue that existing treaties are sufficient but need to be interpreted or contextualized
differently [27, 28]. From an economic perspective, scholars point to the unrealized potential for free market
solutions and argue for the provision of incentives to the commercial sector to address the space debris problem
[29, 30, 31]. Still others focus on the engineering challenges and argue that R&D is the best way of moving beyond
the current impasse [4].
These are merely snapshots of a much wider debate. Our interest here is not to discuss these proposals in detail,
but to make two points. First, space debris is a wicked problem and any attempt to solve it through the identification
of a single “master variable” is doomed to fail. Second, while the above proposals diverge in substance, they are
similar in that they envision the governance architecture of space debris in broadly the same terms as it exists today
by implicitly or explicitly presupposing a high degree of international cooperation among spacefaring nations.
However, it is precisely the lack of such cooperation that is a major contributing factor to the problem they identify.
Lack of international cooperation is precisely the reason why the legal framework has not evolved to address the
debris problems, why we lack incentives for commercial actors to invest in mitigation and ADR, and why the
technical challenges thereof still have not been satisfactorily resolved. These questions are most directly addressed
in contributions focusing on the political aspects, for example the “securitization” of debris [32, 33, 34]. These
works agree that international cooperation is necessary for dealing with space debris but very difficult to achieve
in practice.
A number of authors have come forward with proposals on how more intensive cooperation can be ensured by the
international community. Fundamentally, these proposals are united by the call for multilateral, institutional
solutions, such as an international forum or organization that acts as a central, regulatory body. An early
contribution in this regard is by Williams [35], more recent ones are by Gupta [36] as well as Munters and Wouters
[37], who see the establishment of an international organization as a promising approach. Similarly, Jakhu et al.
elaborate a framework for international cooperation in ADR [38].
Although these contributions have made useful points, they do not sufficiently address the political feasibility of
their recommendations, nor do they conduct a critical analysis of existing but unsuccessful international
instruments. For example, it is important to consider that a central body already exists in the form of UN COPUOS,
which could theoretically take over some required functions, but does not seem to be able to do so. Furthermore,
many contributions lack a theoretical grounding in the expansive literature on International Relations theory.
Regarding this latter point, some authors have engaged with theories of international regimes, i.e. sets of
cooperation agreements which govern issues of international concern. An early contribution in this regard came
from Perek, who suggested an international regime to deal with the problem into the debate as early as 2004 [34].
More recent work drawing on international regime theory has been done by McCormick [39]. But these
contributions are small in number and are often more concerned with the normative question how an international
agreement should be designed rather than how the international community could actually arrive at such an
agreement in the first place.
As the above review shows, there have been many academic works discussing ways to solve, manage or mitigate
the space debris issue. Many of these works correctly identify the issue as a collective action problem of the
sustainable use of a common-pool resource [28, 31]. However, most of them fall into the trap of classical economic
thinking about the tragedy of the commons and see only two options: either the privatization and enclosure of LEO
or management through a central regulatory body entrusted with the requisite authority by the international
community. The latter is, at present, not a realistic option. The international political environment has changed
since the 1960s and 1970s, which were a heyday for making international law and creating international
institutions. Today, there is little interest among major spacefaring nations, in particular the United States, to create
binding international rules. But as Ostrom and her collaborators have shown, privatization and centralization are
not the only two options for managing the commons. Instead, we should explore the potential of cooperative
polycentric governance.
4.2 A Polycentric Approach
Based on this critique of monocentric governance, several authors have advanced proposals for less centralized
ways of governing space debris. For instance, Shackelford [40] draws on Ostrom’s work to offer a polycentric
structure as a solution to both the debris problem and the threat of militarization of space. In addition, Munters
[41] and Tepper [42] discuss polycentricity as a solution to the space debris problem. Because these works eschew
centralization and address the complexity of the problem with a complex system of different forms and levels of
governance, they provide a promising approach that will be taken up in the subsequent discussion.
Polycentrism is only one component of Ostrom's theories, albeit a very important one. Importantly, it is a highly
abstracted way of describing system structure, not a political blueprint. For that, Ostrom and her collaborators had
developed a set of eight design principles which describe institutional properties that enable problems of collective
action to be overcome in a cooperative manner [12]. The potential of applying these design principles to the
sustainable use of space has been recognized most recently by Brian Weeden [43, 44]. Although his work yielded
interesting results, he himself identified a critical shortcoming of his approach. The problem arose from the
transferability of Ostroms principles to outer space, since the design principles were developed from research on
the self-governance of local resources and are only conditionally applicable to global commons. Similar problems
were faced by Chaddha who also attempted to use Ostroms principles to design an institutional framework in the
form of an international organization [45]. Although Chaddha goes into more detail than Weeden and his
collaborators, he similarly concludes that the original design principles have to be adjusted to be applicable to
outer space governance.
5 DESIGN PRINCIPLES
The inapplicability of Ostrom’s design principles to global commons was the starting point of the so-called
“scaling up” debate which started with the (unsurprising) realization that local public goods have entirely different
characteristics and basic conditions than global public goods, such as the number of people involved, their cultural
diversity, or the geographic extent of the good [15]. Hence, while some lessons learned from the study of local
goods may be relevant to global systems, global commons present a different set of challenges that arise primarily
from their extreme size and complexity [14]. In other words, the institutional frameworks that give a small number
of pastoralists the chance to use a single pasture sustainably are only conditionally suited to enable, for example,
humanity to sustainably manage the global climate. This succinct observation gave rise to a debate that divided
research on the sustainable use of public goods into two camps: While some commentators dismissed the utility
of Ostrom’s work for understanding and managing global ecological issues, an opposing camp argued that her
findings could be modified to become relevant for larger-scale resources [15, 46, 47]
To move beyond the limitations of Weeden’s and Chaddha’s analyses, we draw on the work by Stern, who,
building upon Ostrom’s approach, identifies seven “adapted design principles” (ADPs) for the institutional design
of global commons management [15]. We apply these seven principles to the current state of governance regarding
space debris in LEO and identify steps towards a more robust polycentric governance thereof.
ADP 1: Invest in science to understand the resource and its interactions with users and those affected by its use.
The first design principle refers to the fact that global resources and their complex interactions with users are often
poorly understood. However, a comprehensive understanding of the resource is an important prerequisite for its
sustainable use. In our view, this principle is adequately fulfilled within the present system. The problem of space
debris and the properties of LEO are well understood so that actors have access to good knowledge about the
resource. Many countries have also increased investments in space science in recent years, although additional
funding would still be useful.
ADP 2: Establish independent monitoring of the resource and its use that is accountable to the range of interested
and affected parties.
A resource that cannot be monitored cannot be managed. But effective monitoring alone is insufficient if it is not
independent and accountable to all stakeholders. This is the domain of space situational awareness (SSA) which
Weeden defines as “information about the space environment and activities in space that can be used to operate
safely and efficiently […] and understand the evolution of the space environment” [48:986]. There are a multitude
of parallel SSA systems run by the United States, Russia, the European Union, China, India and other spacefaring
nations [45, 48]. But while the quality of data has improved substantially over the past decades, there are important
limitations. Many countries do not share the data they are collecting, and those that do (e.g. the United States),
keep parts of the data classified. Hence, we have a multitude of different SSA programs that run parallel to each
other and overlap in parts, but are not joined into a coordinated or cooperative approach. Instead, what emerges is
a patchwork of national databases which obstructs attempts of a more collaborative and holistic monitoring.
This has spurred the commercial sector into action, since the lack of reliable data is putting space assets at risk. In
a comprehensive analysis of recent SSA developments and trends, Lal et al. conclude that private and commercial
actors are becoming more relevant in the field [49]. While private and commercial SSA undoubtedly has the
potential to improve monitoring of LEO, the development of additional databases will not alleviate the underlying
problem of the fragmented nature of global SSA. This fact has also been recognized by private actors. In 2010,
three of the largest satellite communications companies launched the Space Data Association (SDA), an open,
non-profit platform in which a large number of private and government satellite operators are now organized to
share information and data amongst the members. Although the SDA is a promising concept, it is far from being
a global network.
In short, technological progress and additional investment have significantly improved the potential of SSA in
recent years and offer, at least in theory, the chance to monitor space and its use more comprehensively than was
ever possible before [49, 50]. However, as Weeden argues, the problem lies not in the quality or quantity of data
but the lack of interoperability between SSA systems [48]. To sum up: the monitoring of space and space activities
is by no means global, but is fragmented and only selectively cooperative. There are a variety of different SSA
systems, databases, and other information sources maintained by both new and established actors. Information
sharing is insufficient, and monitors are only accountable to their funders.
Our recommendations are fourfold: 1) develop shared standards for data collection and implement application
programming interfaces to improve interoperability of data and systems, 2) encourage information-sharing among
SSA systems both at the political level (through high-level agreements) and the working level (by strengthening
horizontal networks among experts), 3) expand public-private collaboration through a standing forum or working
group that develops norms and standards (similar to the annual AMOS Dialogue organized by the Secure World
Foundation), and 4) develop procedures for independent verification of monitoring systems (e.g. through expert
review, possibly under the auspices of a competent international body like UN COPUOS).
ADP 3: Ensure meaningful participation of the parties in framing questions for analysis, defining the import of
scientific results, and developing rules.
The assumption underlying this ADP is that decisions involving as many stakeholders as possible have greater
legitimacy and that resulting rules enjoy greater acceptance [20]. Stern’s use of the word “meaningful” is somewhat
vague and there are questions who should be considered as a “party”, but whichever definitions one uses, it
becomes very clear that the current system of LEO governance fails to achieve this criterion by a considerable
margin. Outer space governance is institutionally top-heavy substantial decisions can only be made through
intergovernmental deliberations in official forums (such as UN COPUOS) or through unofficial channels (such as
the ongoing discussions of the proposed Artemis Accords). On the one hand, this creates inequities among states,
with the major “space powers” usually getting their way; on the other, it excludes other actors, such as commercial
actors, civil society and the scientific community from meaningful participation. This is not to say that these actors
do not matter. In fact, they do play an important role when it comes to more technical questions where their input
and advice are valued. However, final decision-making authority rests with state governments.
To ensure that this ADP is fulfilled would require reforms that go far beyond the space debris issue, encompassing
the whole of outer space governance. We have already expressed our scepticism about the feasibility of proposals
arguing for a revision of the Five Treaties or the UN system of space governance. Hence, our recommendations
here are smaller and more incremental, even if they do not reach the level required to fulfil the ADP: 1) set in
motion a consultative process including all stakeholders to generate consensus about the shape of the space debris
problem, likely scenarios and policy options, 2) support the emergence of and strengthen “watchdog” non-
governmental organizations to hold governments and space agencies accountable, 3) encourage the growth of a
transnational public sphere among business, science and civil society to provide a counterweight to the state-
dominated system of outer space governance.
ADP 4: Integrate scientific analysis with broad-based deliberation.
With this ADP, Stern refers to the need to bring scientific knowledge into decision-making. This necessity arises,
among other things, from the fact that imperfect knowledge leads to different interpretations depending on the
interests and values of the actors. In our view, this is already achieved actors in the space debris community
generally base their assessments on the best available science. Some aspects could still be improved, such as the
level of funding for space science (ADP 1), information-sharing among practitioners (ADP 2), or the breadth and
inclusiveness of deliberation (ADP 3) but we are confident that future discussions will continue to be based on
sound scientific analysis.
ADP 5: Higher-level actors should facilitate participation of lower-level actors.
Similar to ADP 3, this ADP is based on the assumption that rules whose creation involves a broad spectrum of
actors have greater legitimacy and are more readily accepted. Actors at higher levels who are entrusted with rule-
making should therefore enable the participation of actors at formally lower levels. In the environment of space
governance, this aspect is of particular interest, due to the entrance of a large number of new actors in recent years,
especially from the private sector.
2
Yet again similar to ADP 3, we find that the current architecture of outer space
governance obstructs, rather than facilitates participation of lower-level actors.
The core institutions of outer space governance in the UN system are UN COPUOS and, for certain security issues,
the UN Conference on Disarmament (UNCD). Non-governmental memberships are not provided for in COPUOS.
In addition to official members, there are a number of permanent observers, including other intergovernmental
organizations, NGOs, and scientific institutes and associations, but these are excluded from formal decision-
making processes. Commercial actors are not eligible for observer status and Johnson-Freese and Weeden argue
that they have in the past been actively shut out from deliberations [43]. UNCD is, if anything, even more restrictive
than UN COPUOS, not even offering observer status to non-members. There is also the International
Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized UN agency which is responsible for the allocation of the radio
frequency spectrum and thus controls which and how many satellites can be active in certain areas of space in
order to avoid physical and electromagnetic interference. In addition to its current 193 member states, the ITU
includes over 900 members from the private sector, academia, and other international organizations. Commercial
stakeholders can participate in discussions and are integrated into rule-making, making the ITU significantly more
inclusive than COPUOS and UNCD [43].
Overall, space governance does not meet the requirement for participation of private actors arising from ADP 5.
In particular, the state-centeredness and complete exclusion of private actors at UN COPUOS, by far the most
important body of formal governance, is a major impediment. Although the ITU does better at integrating
commercial actors, its competence is limited to the distribution and control of radio frequencies. The rule-making
processes of formal space governance are thus decidedly state-centric, and there is no question of far-reaching
vertical integration. This finding is particularly problematic given the increasing relevance of private actors in the
2
This could also be discussed in terms of the inequities among established and newly spacefaring nations that
is captured in Paikowsky’s notion of a “Space Club[51] or the participation of civil society organizations.
practice of space and their responsibility for a significant portion of space activities today [4].
But again similar to ADP 3, meeting the standard for ADP 5 would require far-reaching reforms of governance
structures which are unlikely to be achieved. Therefore, we offer the following limited recommendations: 1) reform
UN COPUOS to allow for observer status for commercial actors, either individually or through industry
associations, and revise internal procedures to be as inclusive as possible within the UN system, 2) set up a
deliberative forum (similar to ADP 2 and possibly in conjunction with the forum proposed there) bringing together
representatives of governments, space agencies, the business sector, academia and civil society. This forum would
have no formal authority but could issue recommendations, develop norms and standards and give a voice to lower-
level actors.
ADP 6: Engage and connect a variety of institutional forms from local to global in developing rules, monitoring,
and sanctioning.
This ADP directly engages with the multi-level nature of polycentric governance. The intent here is to allow for
decentralized action that is nonetheless connected into a wider system. We find evidence of such a variety of
institutional forms for the governance of space debris [40, 41, 42]. Besides the high-level political institutions we
discussed above, there are many other forums, networks and specialized organizations working at the international
level. For example, the IADC was founded in 1993 to provide a forum for national space agencies to coordinate
efforts to understand and mitigate the space debris problem. The International Organization for Standardization
(ISO) developed Standard 24113 (Space Systems-Space Debris Mitigation) in 2010. The International
Astronautical Federation (IAF) is an international multistakeholder organization that engages in knowledge
sharing, advocacy and facilitating dialogue. The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) represents the
scientific community and has been influential through the publication of targeted reports representing the best
available knowledge on specific topics of current concern. On the national level, we can also find national
governments, space agencies and the space industry engaged in various constellations of policy-making.
However, while there may be a multiplicity of institutions, they are insufficiently connected. The IADC, the IAF,
the IAA and other networks have been very important in the development of shared assessments and standards but
their impact has been limited by the top-heavy and monocentric design of outer space governance. The same holds
true for national-level institutions which space law mainly treats as the implementation channel through which
global agreements are transmitted. Hence, our recommendations are aimed at decentralizing the system and
making interconnections more numerous and more dense: 1) encourage forms of private governance, e.g. in the
coordination of space assets, 2) empower lower-level decision making through national space laws that define
appropriate roles for non-state actors, 3) reform the IADC to facilitate participation by non-state actors or create a
parallel forum for public-private deliberation, and 4) leverage existing norms of cooperation and collaboration in
space activities to argue for more cooperative, cross-cutting ways of decision-making.
ADP 7: Plan for institutional adaptation and change.
This principle is of particular relevance here, since human use of space is undergoing a fundamental
transformation. This concerns not only the number of actors, the rapidly increasing intensity of space activity, or
technological progress, but also the growing number of purposes for which space is used. While spaceflight
initially served mainly civilian research and military purposes, nowadays economic aspects play an increasingly
important role. The market for telecommunications satellites is evolving rapidly and new business opportunities
in space tourism or asteroid mining are expected to become commercially viable soon. At the same time, risks of
overuse, worsened by the growing number of space objects, are becoming more apparent. All this shows the
fundamental changes that space and its use are undergoing and underlines the importance of adaptable governance
structures.
Unfortunately, we see little evidence of adaptability in the current system of governance. UN COPUOS is
frequently described as gridlocked [42], the same applies to UNCD, and even the ITU has done little to adapt its
procedures to a changing environment. Too many institutions represent the geopolitical bargains of the 1950s and
1960s, when the majority of them were created. The last major international treaty, the Moon Agreement, was
signed in 1979 (and languishes due to a lack of ratifications). The lack of adaptability of space governance is
particularly serious since space debris, undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges for the future of LEO usage, is
not addressed in any of the international treaties. The lack of a uniform definition of space debris and a legal
clarification about ownership and liability of debris objects are major lacunae in this regard.
The main reason given for the inability to establish new binding agreements is the consensus principle under which
UN COPUOS operates, which stymies most political initiatives [40, 43]. Although it is difficult to imagine that
UN COPUOS will adopt new binding regulations or transform itself into a more adaptable and inclusive institution,
there seems to be at least some willingness to address relevant issues: in 2010, the Working Group on the Long-
term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTSOSA) was established to address challenges around the
sustainable use of outer space. Based on the working group's findings, COPUOS adopted 12 guidelines for the
sustainable use of outer space in 2016, supplemented by an additional nine guidelines in 2018. Although the
guidelines are voluntary, non-binding recommendations and by no means represent an institutional adaptation,
they are at least a step in the right direction.
But by and large, the UN system is badly suited for adaptation in a rapidly evolving environment, a point that other
authors have also made with reference to outer space law [24, 25, 52]. Hence, it seems more constructive to ask
how the institutional framework of the UN could be complemented with other institutions to make the overall
system more adaptable. Much as with our recommendations for ADPs 3, 5 and 6, we would argue for a more
polycentric approach that empowers lower-level actors and creates additional avenues for deliberation. Such a
more decentralized and informal system would also be significantly more adaptable. If any new institutions are
created in the process, they should have built-in review requirements so that their statutes can be adapted,
preferably through qualified majorities rather than by unanimous consent.
6 CONCLUSION
In this paper, we have discussed the problem of space debris from a commons management perspective. Using
insights from the literature on global commons, we have argued that space debris is not just a technical, economic
or legal problem but that there is also a political dimension that has obstructed attempts to sustainably manage
LEO. In our view, these problems are interconnected and therefore require a holistic approach. To this end, we
have used the notion of polycentricity and the adapted design principles for commons management by Stern to
analyze the limitations of the current system of space debris governance. We also offer policy recommendations
how the system could become more polycentric while being mindful of the difficulties of meaningful reform. Our
analysis shows that the current system of outer space governance, especially as it pertains to LEO and space debris,
is badly suited to a rapidly worsening situation. Institutions are too centralized and top-heavy, lower-level actors
are insufficiently integrated, and linkages between institutions and actors need to be strengthened.
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