Establishing an Orbital Commons

Earth’s orbits are regarded as a commons, a resource to which no individual actor holds exclusive title (Vogler 1995, 2); an “environmental object” which should not be appropriated to any individual group (Crowe 1969, 1103). Unilateral appropriation of the orbital commons during the Space Race between the former USSR (now referred to as the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS) and the United States set the standard for decades of pollution before the risks of debris were fully realized.

The first two historic actors in space are still the largest owners of debris. Although the USSR and the US were significant members of early outer space regimes, they remained unaccountable for their pollution and monopolization of orbits. There are thousands of US and CIS satellites, while many New Space countries and companies only have a single satellite in operation. 

The Big Polluters

The list of countries with the most orbital debris coincides with the timeline of the first countries to develop national space programs with orbital launch capabilities. The longer a country has had a space program, the more debris it will likely generate in orbit.

Historically, the socioeconomic benefits of having satellites in use gave countries a large edge over those without (Chizea 2002, 299).  Figure 1 only shows the top twenty polluters from either nations or international organizations due to the skewed amount of debris large spacefaring countries contribute. The data comes from Space Track, a comprehensive database cited and used by multiple commercial actors and national programs. Organizations in Figure 1 were ranked on their total amount of debris in orbit. In the table, ‘active’ denotes that the space object is in a maintained, stable orbit, while “decayed” means the debris no longer has the fuel to stay in orbit and will eventually fall back to Earth. “Active payloads” are synonymous with any satellite currently in operation.

While the database does include dozens of actors with only a single active satellite or a single piece of debris, they were omitted due to the grandiose nature of the top polluters.  The data also shows that active satellites make up only 18.5% of total space objects. Out of the top twenty polluters, only eight have more active satellites in orbit than they do debris.

Figure 1.  Debris and Satellites in Orbit

Launch StateActive PayloadsActive DebrisActive TotalDecayed PayloadsDecayed DebrisDecayed TotalDebris TotalPercent of Debris
United States4565521297771454556170151222772.81%
United Kingdom480148115520214.19%
North Korea224022466.67%

Figure 3.

Decayed Orbital Debris

Figure 2 depicts the scale at which the top three orbital debris polluters contribute to the issue. The Commonwealth of Independent States created the most debris historically and is responsible for more debris than the other actors on the list combined.

Figure 2. Total Amount of Debris

The United States is also a significant contributor, with China coming third. Although it was not one of the bipolar leaders of the Space Race during the Cold War era, China’s rapid economic growth within the 21st century coincides with a significant increase in its space presence. China’s investment in constellations should also see a rise in their active payloads.

Out of the three large polluters, the US retains the lowest active payload to debris ratio. The US commercial sector is seeing a rise in constellation satellite companies in the last decade, notably SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Figure 3. Active Payloads

SpaceX’s constellation contributes to 3000 of the active American payloads. SpaceX’s constellation satellites come with deorbiting capabilities, keeping the percentage that will likely turn to debris low. Their goal of 12,000 satellites in orbit will nearly triple the amount of active American payloads – just from a sole commercial space actor.

Figure 3 represents the ownership of active payload satellites in orbit. Active payloads are any infrastructure currently in use. Over three-quarters of active satellites are operated by the US or Russia, with an overwhelming majority of the active satellites coming from the US public and private sectors. The US remains the country with the most space capability in the 21st century, and the most to lose due to the debris threat. 

The United Kingdom: A Model Leader?

Figure 3 shows that the UK is currently the fourth largest active player in space. However, as shown in the last column of Figure 1, the United Kingdom retains one of the best active payloads to debris ratios, with only 4.19% of their space objects being debris. As both one of the most active space organizations in international forums and one of the original space-launching countries, its impact on the orbital environment is remarkable and uncharacteristic in contrast to its peers.

In Conclusion

The presence of Old Space actors’ debris in Earth’s orbits creates a significant threat to the safety and security of future orbital activity. We can point fingers at the debris culprits, but there is no internationally recognized way to remove debris; the laws don’t exist, and the technology to make it happen is still being developed. What’s worse, is that Russia, the biggest debris polluter, has announced it will leave the ISS in 2024. This is a major step back in international collaboration. There’s also the difficulty of enforcing the Russian government to take responsibility for Soviet Era satellites.

Although the US has less junk, its commercial space boom of the last decade is slowly, but surely, filling up our skies with ridiculous amounts of constellation satellites. Our orbits are limited in space, and overcrowding runs the risk of turning them into a non-renewable resource. Unrestricted access will make the clean-up job more dangerous and push back our hopes of creating sustainable orbits.


Chizea, F.D., 2002. Small Satellites in Developing Countries — An Integral Part of National Development, in: Rycroft, M., Crosby, N. (Eds.), Smaller Satellites: Bigger Business? Concepts, Applications and Markets for Micro/Nanosatellites in a New Information World. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, pp. 299–306. 

Crowe, B., 1969. The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited. Science, 3909.

Volger, J., 1995. The Global Commons: Environmental and Technological Governance. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

1 Comment

Satellite Constellations - Orbit Review · 12 April 2023 at 9:29 PM

[…] Starlink satellites alone would rank third on the list of actors with active space payloads – behind the US and Russia. The US is liable for any damages or issues that might occur should a Starlink satellite interfere […]

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