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I know there will always be a risk of a strike in space but what is being done to combat the man made risk of debris from finished satellites? I read about a Swiss Organisation that is launching a device to clean up one of their satellites that was finishing its life. Will there be law mandating countries cleanup after themselves (countries that launch can't come off the excuse that they are too poor to cleanup)? Do things like building in decay in the orbit of a satellite so that it will burn up when it is finished exist? Are there other ways of making space safer again?

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There is no law per se, since there is no way to enforce it. There are general guidelines and ideas in place that pretty much everyone follows.

  • Geosync satellites have a reserve of fuel allocated to boost higher or lower in orbit at end of life, to preserve the slots safety.
  • Second stages are not supposed to be pressurized after use, and efforts made to prevent them from exploding (A common occurrence in the past, and source of much debris).
  • LEO satellites should be able to either a) demonstrate that they will de-orbit naturally within a certain time frame (Much easier than in GEO) b) de-orbit themselves over an ocean if there is a risk of landfall in-tact c) re-orbit to a disposal zone (a higher orbit).

This is a rough distillation of the IADC guidelines, not everyone abides by them.

Alas, it is much too late for some of the longer lived debris, and the Chinese ASAT test did not help. Nor did the collision of the Iridium and Russian satellite.

There are many thoughts on how to clean up, beyond waiting for stuff to deorbit.

  • ElectroDynamic Tethers that can attach to deorbit, either built in or after the fact.
  • Ground based lasers that vaporize the leading edge of the object, to generate thrust to slow it down, leading to deorbit (Or if small enough, vaporize the entire object).
  • Some satellite that can collect debris somehow. (Insert much hand waving).

The goal is to get rid of the biggest stuff with an EDDE like approach, and maybe a laser based approach to focus on the little stuff in dangerous orbits.

Neither is cheap nor fast.

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There are no laws, but there are guidelines.

In 2002, the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee published the "IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines," and presented these to the UNCOPUOS Scientific & Technical Subcommittee (STSC), where they served as a baseline for the "UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines." In 2007 these guidelines were approved by the 63 STSC member nations as voluntary high-level mitigation measures. Since the mid-1990s, space agencies in Europe have developed more technically oriented guidelines as a "European Code of Conduct," which was signed by ASI, UKSA, CNES, DLR and ESA in 2006.

The core elements of this Code of Conduct are in line with the IADC and UN guidelines. In order to tailor the Code of Conduct to the needs of ESA projects, ESA has developed its own "Requirements on Space Debris Mitigation for Agency Projects". These instructions came into force on 1 April 2008. They are applicable to all future procurements of space systems (launchers, satellites and inhabited objects).

Space debris mitigation guidelines provide a framework for 'what' needs to be done. The way 'how' mitigation measures must be implemented is specified in a more formal manner, via international standards - or via binding national requirements for the design and operation of space systems.

Such common standards guarantee a level field for industrial competition and for safe access to space into the future. International debris mitigation standards have been developed at ISO, such as in ISO-24113. The European Cooperation on Space Standardization (ECSS) adopted ISO-24113 in the space sustainability branch.

Experts from ESA regularly support these developments and their harmonisation with existing guidelines and requirements, such as in the ECSS. The ultimate ISO standards on space debris mitigation, however, will remain non-binding (as is true for any ISO standard).

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