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What keeps space pioneers up at night

Nikkei Asian Review

26 Jan 2017

With only 1,400 of the 19,000 artificial objects being tracked in orbit around Earth representing functional satellites, the issue of "space debris" is becoming a serious fear for the international space community. Sobering are the possible repercussions of the Kessler syndrome, a theory proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, whereby two floating objects break down into smaller pieces upon collision, generating a infinite cycle producing ever smaller (and more) scraps of debris. In this scenario, satellites, spaceships, and space stations exist in a constant state of endangerment.

"Legally, under the U.N.'s Outer Space Treaty, countries are responsible for the debris that they leave behind," explained Kathryn Thomson, partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster and a former general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation. "But as a practical matter, there are no consequences. It is hard to trace debris to any particular country."

According to Thomson, the question of responsibility needs to be "fleshed out at the international level."

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