Space Sustainability Guidelines Approved by the United Nations

As the space exploration industry grows and scientific advances are made, there is an increased risk of collisions and other harmful activities occurring in space. To address these concerns, the UN formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, whose mandate was to develop a list of non-binding guidelines governing space exploration.

The committee came up with a list of nine guidelines, which were approved by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN in early February 2018. These guidelines join 12 others that were approved in 2016 to help maintain the long-term sustainability of space and space travel.

These new guidelines do not have any legal force and are not legally binding on any member nation. Committee Chair David Kendall explained that the guidelines were not meant to be laws themselves, but to be incorporated into the legal systems of member countries. They address the fragility of space and the need for effective use of space going forward.

Among the topics covered by these guidelines, the committee discussed improving the registration of space objects, along with the implementing better methods for sharing that information. These guidelines also address the risks of re-entry, which precautions should be in place when lasers are used in outer space, and how to asses objects that can control their own trajectories.

When speaking about these guidelines to other developers, Kendall mentioned the “small satellite guideline” in particular. This one asks member nations to take measures leading to better tractability of small objects placed into space. Satellite operators are asked to limit the long-term presence of broken or decommissioned satellites in orbit.

The committee still has seven additional guidelines they are currently discussing and negotiating. This set addresses topics including the active removal of space objects, the need to use space for peaceful purposes, and the recommended proximity of one space operation in relation to the other. The committee meets again in June.