It's probably not a coincidence that spacecraft are raining down onto our heads from orbit left and right, and that the United States has just decided to play nice and cooperate with the European Union to draft an international space code of conduct.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement on Tuesday supporting the European Union's existing space code of conduct, a rather general document that's been in place since 2008 with the intention of improving safety and security and making sure everyone has access to orbit. In the statement, the State Department seems mostly concerned with making sure that other countries keep track of all of their space junk:
The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors. Ensuring the stability, safety, and security of our space systems is of vital interest to the United States and the global community.
Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.
In response to these challenges, the United States has decided to join with the European Union and other nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. A Code of Conduct will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space.
It's all well and good to talk about how all these "irresponsible actors" have been leaving garbage in orbit for the last half century or so, but my guess is that if anyone runs the numbers, the U.S. is likely one of the most irresponsible actors out there due to the amount of stuff that we keep on chucking up to orbit and then forgetting about. We can pat ourselves on the back for suddenly deciding that it's in everyone's best interests to be more careful in the future, but that doesn't negate all the crap that's already up there that we're responsible for.
Dealing with existing orbital garbage is not an easy problem, and lots of solutions of varying degrees of creativity have been suggested recently. The stakes, however, are very high: orbital debris runs the risk of hitting a critical mass where junk collides with junk making even more junk until there's so many things whizzing around up there that it'll be too dangerous to send up new satellites, much less spacecraft with humans inside them. This international space conduct code is a good first step, but it's just a first step, and we're all going to need to start taking action as soon as is practicable to keep space clean and open for everyone.