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CleanSpace One illustration
A proposed Swiss satellite to deorbit cubesats could address more than just the technical issues of orbital debris cleanup. (credit: EPFL)

Swiss space debris effort could open the political door to space debris removal


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The Swiss Space Center at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne announced on February 15 its plan to develop and launch a satellite to remove space debris from low Earth orbit. The $11-million satellite, called CleanSpace One, is intended to actively intercept and de-orbit one of two Swiss satellites: the Swisscube-1 picosatellite, launched in 2009, or its cousin TIsat-1, which are each cubes 10 centimeters on a side. CleanSpace One is intended to rendezvous with its target, extend a grappling arm to grab the picosatellite, and then plunge into Earth’s atmosphere, which would result in CleanSpace One’s destruction as well as the defunct satellite during reentry.1 The announcement by the Swiss Federal Institute has been met by enthusiasm by the space debris community, and it holds the promise to demonstrate a viable means of space debris removal. However, in announcing this effort, the Swiss may have inadvertently provided the answer to policy questions surrounding the issue of space debris removal.

The Swiss space debris removal effort, however, could sidestep the space weapon debate in particular and provide a forum for large-scale space debris removal efforts.

Space debris removal entails more than then technical challenges. Significant legal and policy challenges are also a substantial part of space debris removal. The legal issues surrounding space debris removal include ownership issues under international law, liability, and in the case of nations such as the United States, technology and licensing and export matters.2 However, while these issues are impediments to space debris removal, they are not insurmountable.

Political issues surrounding space debris removal are another impediment equal to, if not greater than, to those presented in the legal arena. Of the political difficulties presented, the most onerous extends to the hardware and methodologies used to remove space debris from orbit because they may be construed to have the potential dual use as a weapon to either disable or de-orbit functioning space objects. This political concern is embodied by the continuing efforts by China and Russia in their efforts to enact the draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). Development and use of technology and methodologies may proceed without the intent of using them for harmful purposes; however, political and diplomatic posturing by other spacefaring and non-spacefaring nations alike could brand space debris removal efforts as a pretext for more threatening activities simply because the potential exists for the technology and methodologies to be used in a manner inconsistent with their true purpose.

The Swiss space debris removal effort, however, could sidestep the space weapon debate in particular and provide a forum for large-scale space debris removal efforts. Switzerland has traditionally taken a neutral political stance in larger world affairs. It has no ongoing geopolitical issues with China and Russia, and it stands to reason that the planned flight of CleanSpace One will not raise political objections that the use of the technology demonstrates a space weapon capability. If no objections are raised, and CleanSpace One completes its mission, Switzerland may unintentionally create two routes to nullify political concerns about space debris removal and open up the activity en masse.

First, a successful removal by the Swiss of one of its satellites could set a customary precedent for international space law in that it would perform the otherwise unprecedented maneuver of removing a space object through the use of another space object. Performing such a maneuver without objection of the international community could establish a customary norm that a nation can remove a derelict space object registered to it through the use of another space object without the interference or objection of other nations.3

The Swiss announcement of its space debris removal demonstration is a positive step forward in space debris removal efforts. However, what is more encouraging is the potential political door the Swiss announcement may have opened.

Another avenue that the Swiss effort could take is to provide a neutral launching state through which space debris removal efforts may be undertaken. Space debris efforts launched under the auspices of the Swiss government could allow large-scale space debris removal efforts to take place without the political objection that it is a cover for the testing or deployment of space-based weapons. Such an path might be unsavory for the major spacefaring nations; however, utilizing Switzerland’s neutrality to avoid political suspicions would allow legal mechanisms to be employed, including consent agreements to interfere with and remove another foreign sovereign’s derelict space object, licensing agreements to address export controls, security clearances in the case of space objects involved in national security activities and indemnification in the event that removal activities produce liability to the Swiss government.4

Alternatively, if the Swiss government sees an economic benefit in the space debris removal industry because of its political neutrality, it might consider promulgating a domestic space law similar to the one adopted by Austria in 2011 (see “A first look at Austria’s new domestic space law”, The Space Review, December 12, 2011). Creating a domestic space law would help facilitate foreign non-government entities to create organizations under Swiss jurisdiction for the purpose of space debris removal. Creation of such a law would allow organizations to incorporate and operate within Switzerland and perform space debris removal under Switzerland’s jurisdiction as a launching state thus taking advantage of Switzerland’s neutrality and the diminished scrutiny that affiliation would entail.

The Swiss announcement of its space debris removal demonstration is a positive step forward in space debris removal efforts. However, what is more encouraging is the potential political door the Swiss announcement may have opened. Whether the Swiss government will further open the door and invite other nations to take advantage of their political neutrality to usher in large scale space debris removal is uncertain, but the opportunity for Switzerland is apparent and ripe for the picking.

Endnotes

1 Stephen Harris, “Researchers propose satellite that cleans up space debris”, The Engineer, February 17, 2012.

2 Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty sets out that a party to the treaty will retain jurisdiction and control over any object it launches into space even if that object becomes non-functioning. There is no right to salvage given this precept, and for a foreign country to remove or otherwise interfere with a defunct satellite belonging to another state, it would have to receive permission from that state to do so. This is not an issue with the Swiss effort since the satellites in question are registered to Switzerland.

3 The vehicle through which Switzerland could accomplish is via customary international law. A prime example of customary international law as applied to outer space activities is launch of Sputnik-1, which established the customary norm of free passage in outer space.

4 As the launching state for outer space activities, including space debris removal, Switzerland would be liable for those space activities and liable for any damage incurred during such activities under Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty and the Liability Convention.


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