The environmental threats in outer space

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Based on publication of Lotta Viikari – The Environmental Element in Space Law

One of the definitions of the environment describes it as the aggregate of surrounding things, conditions, or influences. So far, with environmental issues, we were focusing on everything which surround us here on Earth. But all our Earth is surrounded by outer space and we are and in the future it is very likely that we will be in close interaction with it. The international interest in outer space was largely manifested during the Cold War, when Soviet Union successfully launched first satelite Sputnik I. Subsequently, other satelites were launched into the outer space and the exigence of some international legislation of outer space has arised.

In general, the principles of the outer space legislation are contained in the five UN conventions:

  1. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exporation and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Outer Space Treaty)
  2. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Treaty)
  3. Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the Space Liability Convention)
  4. Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the Registration Convention)
  5. Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the Rescue Agreement)

The first and to this issue the most relevant legislation is the Outer Space Treaty, also known as the Space Constitution which consists the leading principles in space activities – the freedom of use and exploration. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Outer Space Treaty is very poor legislation in the field of environmental protection. Unfortunately, also other contracts affect environmental issues only marginally. At the time they were created, this issue does not belong among the most important on the national agenda of the states involved in space exploration.

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Space exploration is a polluting industry. The space technology production and the transport of its products on Earth are far from being environmentally friendly activities. Also, the launching stage is a polluter: it produces noise pollution, dust and emissions. Furthermore, on its way to outer space, a space vehicle necessarily travels through the atmosphere, where discharges from rocket motors deteriorate the ozone layer, diminishing the protection for life on Earth against ultraviolet radiation. Another environmental impact in this respect is acid rain. All rockets release or create products that contribute to depletion of the ozone layer, such as oxides of nitrogen. In any case, the most severe environmental hazards in the space sector are those taking place after the launch phase.

  1. Space Debris

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The most prominent environmental problem connected with space activities is space debris. ‘Space debris’ is a general term referring to all tangible man-made materials in space other than functional space objects. Debris thus includes spent satellites themselves, ejected instrument covers, fragments thereof, etc., that is objects which originate from what were functional space objects but which no longer serve a useful purpose. Hence everything launched into outer space has the potential to become space debris. Such items are occasionally also called space refuse, space junk or space trash. Far more relevant is the fact that debris may interfere with the radio communications of functional satellites and other spacecraft and disturb the receiving frequency bands on which such sensitive instruments as (Earth-based) radio telescopes operate. Even more significant a problem is the risk of collisions, particularly between space debris and orbiting spacecraft, which can cause significant human and economic losses. The harm that space debris may cause to an operational satellite can range from minor damage to total loss of the spacecraft. Fragmentation debris produced by collisions poses the most severe threat to space activities. Collisions can also release radioactive contamination and other harmful substances.

  1. Nuclear contamination

A problem closely connected with that of space debris is the threat of nuclear contamination. A major source of such contamination in outer space would be accidental satellite collisions and explosions that create nuclear space debris and radiation. Clearly, the launching phase also involves particular risks in the case of space objects using nuclear power. From a human point of view, the most severe of the risks posed by the use of nuclear power in space currently seems to be the possibility of radioactively contaminated objects returning to Earth. Finally, an obvious risk of nuclear contamination derives from the possible deployment and use of space-based nuclear weapons. Accordingly, it has been pointed out in reports of the UNCOPUOS to the UN General Assembly that “the testing, deployment and use of space weapons would create an environment where such weapons would become a threat and target to global security and that States possessing nuclear weapons as well as ballistic missiles could explode a nuclear weapon in space that could cause uncontrolled damage to satellites”

  1. Exobiological contamination

Two additional types of potential environmenexobiological_hazard_by_malicious_monkey-d8h38wstal hazards should be mentioned, namely organic contamination of outer space (‘forward contamination’) and its converse, ‘back-contamination’ of the Earth by unfamiliar organisms and like contaminants transported by returning spacecraf. The introduction of terrestrial substances onto a celestial body, for instance, could permanently jeopardize the existence of possible indigenous life forms. If such life were to exist, interaction with organic substances from Earth could cause mutations, destroy the indigenous life forms or otherwise alter the natural development of life on the celestial body. Analogously, extraterrestrial substances, transported via satellites or other spacecraft, might cause equally catastrophic consequences on Earth or in inhabited space facilities.

Human space activities involve a variety of risks that can be termed environmental. The detrimental effects may concern the space environment, the atmosphere, the Earth, and/or human activities in these environments. The worst-case scenario includes danger even to terrestrial life. In all likelihood, in the not too distant future we will witness a variety of new kinds of uses of outer space, all of which are not necessarily very benign from an environmental perspective. We also need to highlight the fact that we do not pay much attention to the rights of future generations. As space exploration expands further into outer space and takes more extensive forms, such as construction of permanent facilities and the utilization of natural resources for the support of missions, anthropogenic alterations of this environment and the related hazards will be of an order of magnitude far greater than those seen today.

Soňa Pagurková

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