In this scenario, who is liable for the destruction? “Is it the launching state or is it a country that licensed the removal service?” asks Weeden. The Outer Space Treaty, which governs international space law, states that satellites are sovereign objects that belong to the countries that launched them. It includes legal procedures for dealing with damage claims. "The important point is that it’s never actually been invoked," says Weeden.
Until the legal issues are sorted out, all proposed solutions will remain notional, or at best, limited to a small number of debris pieces. In the meantime, the threat continues to grow. As to what it might take to get policymakers to finally move forward with a solution, a lesson could perhaps be drawn from Kessler’s own experience.
After the seventh space shuttle flight returned in 1983 with a 4mm-deep crater in the front window, a committee was formed to investigate. It found the damage was the result of a collision with a paint chip less than 0.2mm in length travelling at just 5km/s (3 miles per second).
When Kessler, a member of the committee, met with then undersecretary of the Air Force, Edward “Pete” Aldridge, to convey the seriousness of the incident, he could see his message wasn’t getting across. That is until Kessler finally pulled the piece of chipped window out of his pocket and showed it to Aldridge, who suddenly seemed to get it.
As Kessler recalled: “He looked at it and said, ‘You know, one person’s data point is worth a thousand people’s speculation'.”