How the UN’s Top Outer Space Boss Will Fight Space Debris

Asteroids, space weather, flying junk: David Kendall has his work cut out for him.

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Jun 30 2016, 2:34pm

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Image: ESA

Space is a hostile place, swarming with asteroids and flying space junk—an estimated half-a-million pieces of debris are floating in Earth orbit right now. These threats and more are top of mind for Canadian David Kendall, who was recently appointed as head of the United Nations' space committee. He's already hard at work. As he told Motherboard by phone, he's hoping to avoid "a bad day in space."

In his new role as the chair of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which oversees everything from threats posed by space weather to asteroids, Kendall's already tackling the huge problem of space debris. He's helped to create the 12 guidelines that will help curb the danger it poses, once they're ratified in October. One will create a voluntary registry where every nation will list the known orbits of their debris.

The committee is more than 50 years old, so it's seen a lot of changes in space exploration, especially in the past 15. Back in the late '90s, it recommended creating two independent UN groups that deal with the threat from asteroids, which was accepted. People take the asteroid threat seriously: Thursday is Asteroid Day, a global awareness campaign.

The asteroid threat is better understood now because NASA has more sensitive tracking programs that can find a greater number of smaller near-Earth objects. There is no imminent threat from an asteroid that we know about, but NASA and other agencies are working on ideas (like spacecraft tugs) for how to divert one if it was coming at us.

Now we also have private companies planning to send people into space, or do space mining. So Kendall said that his next major move will be updating some space treaties to reflect that reality. "They [the companies] are starting to, quite rightly, to push on the boundaries of the agreements we signed 50 years ago," he said.

The overarching treaty from which all others flow—called the Outer Space Treaty—will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. It outlines the activities that nations are able to do in space, emphasizing they should be for peaceful purposes, and that celestial bodies shouldn't be exploited for profit. As many observers have pointed out, this could preclude plans for space mining by companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. Kendall's got his work set out for him.

Last year, the United States approved its own Space Act. It allows for commercial companies to exploit resources on other worlds, as long as they're not biological.

The act is somewhat controversial, Kendall said, because some interpretations would say it goes against parts of the OST. "Lawyers love these things," he joked. Other countries are considering similar acts, such as Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.

Another treaty that may need to be updated is the "Rescue Agreement", which states that astronauts are "envoys of mankind" and should be protected (and rescued, if necessary) if they disembark from their spaceships in a foreign state. But this agreement was struck when only governments—and not companies—launched people into space, Kendall said. It's unclear what would happen if a private company wanted to make use of the treaty to protect space tourists, such as if a plane crash-landed in a hostile country.

With the threat from asteroids, space debris, climate change, and more, Kendall, whose term goes to 2018, will have two busy years ahead.