Legal Issues Related to the Future Advent of Small Satellite Constellations

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The development of international space law within the United Nations, and specifically as negotiated through global consultations of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), was largely first undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s. This process resulted in the negotiation and creation and implementation of the Outer Space Treaty and four additional subsidiary binding instruments. Quite understandably, these twentieth-century agreements did not anticipate many of the latest developments in space technology and systems that have arisen in the twenty-first century. One of the most significant developments in recent years is the development of small satellite technology and systems that can be designed, manufactured, and launched at much lower cost. The international space law that was agreed a half century ago is in some way not sufficient to specifically address all of the issues associated with deployment of large number of small satellites. These issues include a number of concerns related to frequency allocations and interference, removal or deorbit of small satellites at end of life, space situational awareness and space traffic control, and other concerns related to the safety of space systems in Earth orbit.

The processes of agreeing international space law are complex and are based on achieving global consensus and thus tend to be quite slow. By contrast, the current pace at which small satellites are being developed and launched is accelerating each year. This raises concerns about space safety and the avoidance of collisions in space, as well as increased levels of frequency interference. The complexities associated with achieving new levels of international agreement suggest that many of these safety, frequency interference, and improved space situational awareness and space traffic management issues will need to be addressed at the national regulatory level – especially with regard to small satellites. In this regard, issues related to the deployment of the so-called mega-constellations and removal of these satellites at the end of life are perhaps among the most urgent.

This chapter explores the background of international law and regulation with regard to the launch of satellites into Earth orbit, and especially with regard to the increasing number of small satellites that are now being launched or planned for deployment. It also suggests that national regulatory controls and safety measures to prevent the excessive buildup of space debris and increased frequency interference will be the critical near-term solution to these emerging problems. In addition, some form of “soft law” guidelines and informally agreed measures at the international level might also be helpful.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Small Satellites: echnology, Design, Manufacture, Applications, Economics and Regulation
EditorsJoseph N. Pelton, Scott Madry
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-20707-6
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Nov 2019
Externally publishedYes


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