Daily Archives: January 21, 2021

De-Junking the Space and Saving the Commons

The part of space nearest Earth, known technically as low-Earth orbit, is getting cluttered. Some of the objects up there are working satellites. Some are satellites that have stopped working. Some are stages of the rockets which put those satellites into orbit. And a lot are debris left over from explosions and collisions between larger objects.

The risk of such collisions is increasing, for two reasons. First, the number of satellites being launched is rising. Second, collisions themselves beget collisions. The fragments they create add to the number of orbiting objects. At the moment, more than 20,000 such objects are being tracked, but there may be as many as 1million bigger than 1cm across. In the long term, this accumulation of junk may lead to a chain reaction, known as Kessler syndrome, that would make some low-Earth orbits unusable. Even in the short term it puts lots of expensive hardware at risk. So plans are being laid to send up special craft to “deorbit” redundant satellites and rocket stages. Given the current situation, this is a good, if expensive, idea. But a better one for the future would be to build deorbiting into the life-cycles of satellites and rocket stages from the beginning.

There are several ways of doing this. One is a “launch tax”. But that would load costs onto the satellite industry…A second idea is a space-going “bottle deposit” scheme. Satellite owners would pay an agreed sum into an escrow account that was redeemable when they deorbited their property. If they did not do so, enterprising salvagers could try to do it for them, and claim the deposit if successful. This has the virtue of encouraging built-in deorbiting capability….

The best idea, though, is to attack the problem at its roots. The littering of space is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”, in which no charge is made for the use of a resource that is owned collectively. So why not charge the beneficiaries for the right to put something into orbit and keep it there? The longer an object stays up, the more the satellite owner pays. The more popular (and hence crowded) the orbit chosen, the more expensive it would be to add a satellite to it.

That raises the question of who would do the charging. The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, assigns responsibility and liability for objects in orbit to the country which launches them, and entreats signatories to avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.  It would make sense for countries with space-launch capability, and thus an interest in keeping space clean, to hammer out a new and specific agreement. A well-crafted treaty would clean up space, cause it to be used more efficiently, and raise some useful revenue from a resource currently exploited for nothing.

To deal with non-participants acting as free-riders, participants might agree to make pariahs of firms that tried to take advantage in this way… Other natural commons, notably the oceans and the atmosphere, have suffered, and still suffer, from a lack of sensible arrangements for their joint exploitation. It is not too late to stop outer space being added to that list.

Excerpt from Decluttering Low-Earth Orbit: New Brooms Needed, Economist, Jan. 16, 2020