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  • Writer's pictureMohammad Minhazur Rahman Sabit

Saving the Outer Space from Kessler Syndrome or Contaminating the Ocean Commons: A Dilemma

Keywords: Outer Space, Ocean Contamination, Kessler Syndrome

by Mohammad Minhazur Rahman Sabit, Postgraduate Student (LLM), Department of Law and Justice, Jahangirnagar University


'Point Nemo' is a watery graveyard for titanium fuel tanks and other high-tech space debris (from

One of the largest disposal zones of spacecraft in the world is located at Point Nemo, the furthest point from land between New Zealand and South America. Space stations, rockets, orbital satellites, and other spacecraft that either ran out of fuel or were otherwise no longer in service have been carefully directed onto the distant area of the Pacific Ocean, popularly known as the Spacecraft Cemetery, usually fractured into numerous pieces while entering into the earth’s atmosphere. Over time, countries have come to realize that their aerospace network, as well as those of everyone else, are endangered with the generation of space junk, since leaving deactivated satellites in orbit poses a risk to future launches because of their continued movement across the atmosphere. Since 1971, thousands of spacecrafts have been deployed to Point Nemo in an effort to avoid fatalities. Owing to the limitation of contemporary legal research, it is currently impossible to say exactly how to tackle the challenges of disposing of spacecrafts in the Pacific Ocean. This article will attempt to explore the environmental risks of this issue and explore current legal mechanisms.

Environmental Risks of Disposing Space Objects in the Ocean

Debris from SpaceX CRS-4 rocket spotted floating in water between Bryher and Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. A local mariner pulled the debris out of the water and towed it to a beach on Tresco.

It is undoubtedly concerning that oceans are being utilized as dumping grounds for spacecraft. Recently, International Space Station (ISS) has also decided to dispose of its spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean before 2023. Technologically advanced nations cannot irresponsibly keep dumping their rubbish into the ocean and expect it to continue to work in the same manner as it has in the past for mankind. In many respects, this is a stunning depiction of what has been going on for such a long period. To safeguard and preserve maritime environments, it is high time we establish a concrete legal boundary for leftover re-entered spacecrafts that contain hazardous compounds. For example, Hydrazine, a form of rocket fuel that has been classified as "extremely hazardous" to aquatic creatures, is a chemical danger in case of such ocean disposals. If a spacecraft has travelled to and from another planet, it may be contaminated with unknown substances beyond the knowledge of scientists, thereby providing compelling grounds to examine this conduct from a law of the sea standpoint.

In light of the lack of understanding about deep-sea ecosystems and biological processes, it may be critical to follow current methods to assess risks and minimise harm from the marine environment of what is possibly unique and vulnerable ecosystems of which little is known. Indeed, marine biodiversity is in danger because of such negligence and ignorance. While non-toxic metals may make up the majority of the material sunk at Point Nemo, hazardous propellant remnants like hydrazine cannot be ruled out upon re-entry and might, therefore, destroy the marine ecosystem. This is evident from the re-entry of Apollo 13 into the earth’s atmosphere and fall into the South Pacific Ocean, which still contains a full radioisotope thermal generator nuclear battery left behind currently contaminating the marine ecosystem.

Can Ocean Disposal Be a Solution to the Kessler Syndrome?


In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler suggested the term “Kessler syndrome”, which describes a self-sustaining catastrophic collision of space junk in low-Earth orbit, where a belt of objects or pieces of objects would soon emerge around the Earth. According to him, a few years later, the impact of Kessler syndrome, will threaten space exploration. Because of the massive amount of space junk in low Earth orbit, space operations are already in jeopardy. Orbital space junkyard is an accurate description of the earth’s lower orbit right now. There are more and more decommissioned, inactive or broken space objects in orbit, which collide with one another to generate more pieces, resulting in an ever-increasing number of fragments. As each one adds to the already-growing mass of space junk, more accidents are more likely to happen soon in space operations. It was the purpose of the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects 1972 to prevent harm to people or property as a result of space object collisions. Re-entries in isolated locations, where feasible, were thought to be the safest option for this reason. Point Nemo provided a highly practical option that also complied with the previous recommendations for mitigating space junk challenges. From the standpoint of outer space law, it appeared to be an appropriate and convenient choice for managing crucial problems. But as mentioned above, it has proven to be a great threat to aquatic species and marine biodiversity. Everyone on this earth has the right to ocean commons. A few nations do not have the right to contaminate marine biodiversity for the sake of avoiding liability and accountability for outer space operations.

Analysis of Current Legal Framework

Almost 60 years of space exploration have resulted in the Earth's orbits resembling a junkyard, with a rising amount of space junk. Approximately 7,300,000 objects bigger than centimeters in diameter are in orbit around the Earth. The same thing is likely to happen with our oceans if a concrete legal mechanism is not introduced to mitigate this issue. Some legal provisions already prohibit such irresponsible activities, but are hardly followed by various nations. For example, harmful pollution of space, harmful interference with other treaty signatories' space operations, and adverse alterations to the Earth's environment are all prohibited by Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty 1967. The last part of this provision prohibits ocean disposal of space junk but this provision is misinterpreted in practice. Furthermore, environmental concerns regarding human activities in the marine environment grew significantly in the 1950s and 1970s, particularly on the unregulated discharge of pollutants into the ocean.

One of the earliest international accords aimed at protecting the marine environment from human activity was the London Convention of 1972 on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter. Disposal of garbage or other materials from ships, planes, platforms, and other artificial structures in international waters is covered under the London Convention, as is dismantling and dumping ships, aircraft, platforms or other artificial structures in water. By signing the London Convention, countries pledged to create regulatory procedures to analyze the necessity for, and the possible effect of, dumping. Certain hazardous compounds are typically prohibited from being dumped at sea, and contracting parties are required by the London Convention to issue a permit to do so. However, this regulatory framework is barely followed while disposing of space junk into the oceans.

Currently, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea serves as the primary legal basis for maritime law. Concerning the maritime environment, all state parties are obligated to conserve and preserve it and include it in their geographic scope under the Law of the Sea Convention's framework for protection and preservation. It is unclear whether the practice of sinking space objects in the oceans falls within the definition of pollution in Law of the Sea Convention’s article 1(5), but is clear that it falls under the definition of pollution in Law of the Sea Convention’s article 210, which includes dumping and pollution by dumping. Additionally, the Law of the Sea Convention mandates that impact evaluations be carried out as part of this overall framework which is importantly also a duty under international law, as recognised for example by the International Court of Justice in the Pulp Mills Case (Argentina vs. Uruguay 2006). Reasonable reasons to believe that certain actions may cause substantial contamination of or significant and damaging changes to the maritime environment are required to trigger these requirements under article 206 of the Law of the Sea Convention. There may be "reasonable reasons" to suppose that these rather high thresholds of harm may be crossed, but the environmental restrictions included in Part XII of LOSC need to be understood in the context of other sections of this part. For every evaluation, there are extra issues to be considered with this opening up of international environmental legislation. The precautionary principle and the concept of cumulative effects are particularly relevant, as they necessitate careful consideration of the scientific uncertainties involved in the marine environment in question.


Broken launch vehicles, spacecraft, rocket engines and fragmentation debris are only a few examples of the alarming amount of man-made space junk that exists already around the earth and beneath the sea. Those who drafted the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 could not have known how serious the problem of space junks would one day become at the time of the treaty's drafting. To preserve the space environment, they simply developed generic restrictions that are usually seen as insufficient to preserve the marine biodiversity and the resources of ocean commons. Based on the discussions of this term paper, it can be concluded that environmental impact studies should be incorporated into appropriate legislative instruments and frameworks, and relevant global, regional, sub-regional and sectorial entities, to limit the hazards of ocean pollution from the disposal of space objects in the ocean commons.

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