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Editorial: Take lead in creating international rules on space debris

  • December 20, 2021
  • , The Japan News , 12:52 p.m.
  • English Press

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 based mainly on scenarios for removing debris floating in space.


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


Derelict parts of rocket bodies that are generated during launches and satellites that have passed their useful lifespans continue to orbit at high speeds for a long time. The more rocket launches are conducted, the more such space trash increases, eventually making it 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 the satellite. 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. In Japan, 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 venture companies, it is important for the government to provide guidelines and create an environment where business operators can enter the field free from anxiety. It can be said that these guidelines represent an important step in promoting space development by the private sector.


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


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


In November, Russia tested an antisatellite missile to have it hit its own satellite and disperse 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. It is significant that Japan is exerting its presence in the space business in terms of promoting the peaceful use of space.


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

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