Taking Up Space by Any Other Means: Coming to Terms with the Nonappropriation Article of the Outer Space Treaty

Ever since man began travelling to space, we have been leaving debris behind us. Over the last 50 years of space travel, the amount of debris has been growing at a surprising rate. As of 2013, there were over 12,000 pieces of debris, consisting of expended booster rockets, spacecraft parts, and defunct satellites. This amount of debris poses a significant risk to future missions to space, as even a very small piece of debris can cause catastrophic damage to a functioning spacecraft. Under the current international legal regime governing space, however, addressing this problem is not straightforward. Ironically, it is exactly the open-access nature of space, guaranteed by the Outer Space treaty and other treaties, which threatens to hinder efforts to clean up space debris. If this problem is not addressed, we risk causing space to become unnavigable. To ensure that space remains accessible to all, the Outer Space Treaty includes a nonappropriation article. This article makes it a violation of the treaty for any country to appropriate any aspect of space. Thus, to address the space debris problem, any proposed solution must not be undertaken by a single nation or group of nations, but rather must be international in character. The system proposed by this Note is a cap-and-trade system, which would incentivize individual nations to clean up space debris. Part II of the Note discusses the nature of space debris and provides a background of the various international treaties governing space. Part III analyzes the requirements of these treaties and provides a framework for a solution to the space debris problem. Part IV recommends setting up an international regulatory agency to institute a cap-and-trade system. Finally, Part V concludes that such a system would be responsive to the requirements of the international space treaties, would further the Outer Space Treaty\'s goal of keeping space accessible for all mankind, and would provide incentives for countries to reduce the amount of space debris.

The full text of this Note is available to download as a PDF.