Japan should take lead in creating international rules on space debris

Space development is entering a new era in which private companies are taking the lead, but the establishment of relevant rules has not caught up with the change. Japan should lead the way in creating international rules by taking advantage of its technological prowess.

Japan became the first national government in the world to formulate guidelines for private companies servicing Earth-orbiting satellites. The guidelines were compiled mainly with an eye toward the service for removing debris floating in space.

The guidelines call on companies that enter this business to take steps such as measures to prevent collisions with satellites when they perform their services in space. It is commendable that Japan was quick to exhibit its own guidelines to the world.

Derelict parts of rocket bodies that are generated during launches and satellites that have passed their useful life spans continue to orbit at high speeds for a long time. The more rocket launches are conducted, the more such space trash increases, eventually becoming a problem that cannot be left unattended.

There are more than 20,000 large pieces of debris and countless small ones. A piece of debris colliding with a satellite could cause a glitch. In one such case, debris made a hole in a robotic arm of the International Space Station.

A service to collect space debris using a satellite dedicated to the purpose has yet to start, but it is believed there will be strong demand for it in the future. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and start-up Astroscale Holdings Inc. are among those making progress with technological development in the field.

In order to attract investment in new fields and foster start-ups, it is important for the government to provide guidelines and create an environment in which business operators can enter the field free from anxiety. It can be said that these guidelines represent an important step in encouraging the private sector to promote space development.

By seizing the initiative in space business ahead of others, Japan will likely be able to influence future discussions on international rulemaking. If Japanese technology can be established as the standard, there will be many advantages for Japanese companies.

The technology to approach and remove broken satellites is similar to military technology to interfere with the functions of other countries’ satellites. Japan’s guidelines have made it clear that the service is for peaceful purposes, thus must be welcomed by the international community, too.

In November, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile to have it hit its own satellite and dispersed a massive amount of debris. Not only Russia but also the United States and China will be unlikely to hesitate to destroy enemy satellites in the event of contingencies.

Development of binding international laws related to space matters remains insufficient, and the interests of each country may clash as resource exploration among other relevant activities progresses in the future. Japan exerting its presence in space business is also significant in terms of promoting the peaceful use of space.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 20, 2021.