Science & Tech

Outer Space Is Becoming the Final Junkyard

Earth seen from the International Space Station, March 25, 2018. (Johnson Space Center/NASA)
If we want a future in space, we need to clean up the mess out there sooner rather than later.

Policy-makers are finally taking space debris seriously. At the recent G-7 Leaders’ Summit, delegates recognized “the importance of developing common standards, best practices and guidelines related to sustainable space operations” to preserve orbital integrity. Even the World Economic Forum, typically not known to be a bastion of serious problem-solving, is getting in on the action. They’re developing a space sustainability rating, which can provide much-needed transparency and assessment of how national space agencies are dealing with debris. Given America’s renewed commercial and scientific ambitions in space, we need to make space debris a priority.

Spacefaring nations treated orbit like a junkyard for over 60 years. The first piece of debris, created in 1957, was the rocket body from Sputnik 1. Now, there are at least 20,000 pieces the size of a softball, 500,000 pieces the size of a marble, and hundreds of millions of smaller pieces. Because they move so fast, even tiny debris can destroy a spacecraft.

When governments were the only actors in space, the risk of collision was negligible. With the private sector ramping up its operations, however, things will be getting crowded. For example, satellite Internet “megaconstellations” will add tens of thousands of objects to low Earth orbit. More celestial traffic means, sooner or later, more celestial accidents. The biggest worry is that the volume of debris spirals out of control: Collisions cause more debris, which in turn cause more collisions. This scenario, referred to by space scientists as “Kessler syndrome,” would make accessing and using satellites and space stations extremely difficult.

Space debris is a global environmental problem. Aside from the risk to human life, it threatens existing space investment and the broader growth of space commerce.

There are two big hurdles to cleaning up orbit. The first is economic, the second legal.

Economically, space debris is a classic “tragedy of the commons.” Governments and businesses have little incentive to clean up their celestial messes, because doing so is expensive. But every piece of junk left in orbit imposes costs on everybody else. This is a well-known problem in environmental economics: That which nobody owns, nobody cares for. The standard economic solution — property rights — is infeasible in this case. What does it mean to “own” an orbit? There’s only one path forward: better incentives for orbital cleanliness.

Legally, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty holds that launching states retain jurisdiction over their space objects. The only way the U.S. can remove other nations’ space debris is with that governments’ permission. Any effective and lasting reform will require concurrence among the major spacefaring nations: the U.S., Russia, and China. As any diplomat can tell you, getting these nations to agree is not exactly easy. However, given the urgency of the problem, there’s ample room for cooperation among like-minded countries. Take, for example Japan and the European Space Agency, who are funding important pilot programs to deal with debris.

As the premier space power, the U.S. is uniquely positioned to lead the clean-up effort. Recent policy shows promise. The Trump administration’s Space Policy Directive-3 of June 2018 directed a wide array of U.S. government departments to work toward mitigating space debris by exploring scientific and technical solutions, deepening our understanding of the space environment, and expanding international communication and cooperation.

The best thing we can do in the short run is to assign policy responsibilities to the most suitable agencies. Transitioning space-safety surveillance and collision warnings from the Department of Defense to the Department of Commerce is priority No. 1. The need for a collaborative approach led by Commerce was validated last summer by the National Academy of Public Administration, which issued a report finding that the Office of Space Commerce (which is a part of the Department of Commerce) was most capable of handling space-traffic management. With Commerce taking point on debris, we can better use novel data sets and cutting-edge analytic tools to enhance space situational awareness.

Good public policy is essential, but we also need the private sector. The easiest way to limit space debris is to avoid creating more, whether by improving satellite design or increasing maneuverability. Commercial firms have world-class capabilities to build better spacecraft, and are nimble enough to develop new solutions as the problem changes. In fact, private-sector innovation could lead to the development of an entirely new space-safety industry. Voluntary action by industry leaders, through cooperative venues such as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, can develop and implement standards for responsible orbital use.

Humanity’s space ambitions are larger than ever. Soon we’ll return to the moon and prepare to push on to Mars. The space economy, already valued in the hundreds of billions, could grow to $1 trillion by 2040. But space debris could dash all these hopes. If we want a future in space, we need to clean up orbit sooner rather than later.


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