Only 1,400 of the 19,000 artificial objects presently being tracked in Earth orbit are functional satellites. The remaining objects are collectively known as "space debris". Ranging in size from discarded lens caps to spent rocket stages, space debris can pose a collision risk to functional satellites and several satellite failures have been attributed to space debris.
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has paid particular attention to the issue of preventing and minimizing the creation of space debris. Every year, States and organizations exchange information on their space debris research at the Committee's Scientific and Technical Subcommittee. One important result of those discussions has been a set of Space Debris Mitigations Guidelines, which were endorsed by the General Assembly in 2007. In addition to scientific research, the national and international legal aspects of space debris mitigation measures are being discussed by the Legal Subcommittee. To aid their discussions, a compendium of space debris mitigation standards has been compiled by UNOOSA and, at the request of States, is made publicly available through UNOOSA's website.
In addition to present ongoing scientific and legal discussions, the recovery and return of space debris is a central part of the 1968 Rescue Agreement. The treaty requires that States Parties return any "foreign" space objects discovered in their territory to their owners and that they notify the Secretary-General of any such discovered objects. UNOOSA maintains a list of such recovery notifications here.
See below for recent documents relating to Space Debris. For more documents, search the Documents Database.