Waste studies' insight into orbital debris : a United Arab Emirates case study




Goessler, Alyssa

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The proliferation of orbital debris is on track to develop into a tragedy of the commons. This debris poses a conundrum from the political perspective, as international law provides that no state may make a territorial claim to outer space, including celestial bodies. The growing presence of non-state actors in space adds to this complexity. Humans’ ability to fathom the consequences of orbital debris is plagued by the same spatial and temporal biases that affect our understanding of waste on Earth. The field of waste studies—a discipline that assesses waste as a political material—offers valuable insight into the societal and individual perceptions that sustain the proliferation of space junk. It further illustrates how waste can evolve into a diagnostic on the quality of governance, as the ability of a government to manage garbage is one measure of a government’s legitimacy. Chapter one of this thesis draws insight from the discipline of waste studies to explore the political character of space junk. Chapter two serves as a primer on orbital debris, exploring the technical characteristics that help policymakers best understand the phenomenon. It also provides an overview of the legal landscape of orbital debris, identifying some of the key challenges that states face in addressing the problem. Chapter three builds off of this knowledge, applying the framework outlined in chapter one to a prominent emerging spacefaring nation: the United Arab Emirates. After describing the central geopolitical motivations of that nation’s space program, the chapter explores the UAE’s approach to space sustainability and its comments on orbital debris. By assessing the state’s political goals in space with an emphasis on their approach to space sustainability, this chapter provides important insight to the future of the space sustainability agenda. The concluding “futures and findings” section analyzes the results of that case study, suggesting steps that could be taken to fine tune the theoretical model and augment its value. It also presents specific policy implications, suggesting some possible components of a framework on orbital debris, and discussing the role of emerging spacefaring nations in the space sustainability agenda.


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