New calls for reworking or replacing Outer Space Treaty

Yesterday there were two different public statements calling for the international community to either amend or replace the Outer Space Treaty, one an op-ed in the U.S. and the other a statement by the head of Russia’s space agency.

At first glance these announcements seemed hopeful, especially because the op-ed, written by one of the authors of a just released new study [pdf] by a defense-oriented Washington think tank, made part of its focus the need to encourage commercial activities in space.
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Don’t you dare touch my space junk!

cataloged objects in orbit

A just released National Research Council report on space junk, Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: an assessment of NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris programs, describes in great and worthwhile detail the increasing problem of orbital debris as well as the technical and budgetary problems that exist for removing it. It is especially worth reading for the stories, such as when a Colorado hiker heard a high-pitched sound and then found a still warm thirty-inch diameter sphere in a foot deep crater. The object turned out to be a titanium tank from a Russian upper stage rocket, launched two months earlier.

What I want to focus on here, however, is one issue the report discusses that, as far as I can tell, has generally been missed. Worse, this issue — somewhat ridiculous when you think about a little — will make removing most of the space junk in Earth orbit far more complicated than ever imagined by engineers.

Simply put, under already agreed-to international treaties, no nation can salvage or collect any debris placed in orbit by another nation. To do so will violate international law, and almost certainly cause an international incident. To quote the report:
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