Beware Of Space Junk: Global Warming Isn’t the Only Major Environmental Problem

by on December 18, 2009 · 4 comments

by James Dunstan & Berin Szoka* (PDF)
Originally published in on December 17, 2009

As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to consider drastic carbon emission restrictions that could require large-scale de-industrialization, experts gathered last week just outside Washington, D.C. to discuss another environmental problem:  Space junk.[1] Unlike with climate change, there’s no difference of scientific opinion about this problem—orbital debris counts increased 13% in 2009 alone, with the catalog of tracked objects swelling to 20,000, and estimates of over 300,000 objects in total; most too small to see and all racing around the Earth at over 17,500 miles per hour.  Those are speeding bullets, some the size of school buses, and all capable of knocking out a satellite or manned vehicle.

At stake are much more than the $200 billion a year satellite and launch industries and jobs that depend on them.  Satellites connect the remotest locations in the world; guide us down unfamiliar roads; allow Internet users to view their homes from space; discourage war by making it impossible to hide armies on another country’s borders; are utterly indispensable to American troops in the field; and play a critical role in monitoring climate change and other environmental problems.  Orbital debris could block all these benefits for centuries, and prevent us from developing clean energy sources like space solar power satellites, exploring our Solar System and some day making humanity a multi-planetary civilization capable of surviving true climatic catastrophes.

The engineering wizards who have fueled the Information Revolution through the use of satellites as communications and information-gathering tools also overlooked the pollution they were causing.  They operated under the “Big Sky” theory: Space is so vast, you don’t have to worry about cleaning up after yourself.  They were wrong.  Just last February, two satellites collided for the first time, creating over 1,500 new pieces of junk.   Many experts believe we are nearing the “tipping point” where these collisions will cascade, making many orbits unusable.

But the problem can be solved.  Thus far, governments have simply tried to mandate “mitigation” of debris-creation.  But just as some warn about “runaway warming,” we know that mitigation alone will not solve the debris problem.  The answer lies in “remediation”: removing just five large objects per year could prevent a chain reaction.  If governments attempt to clean up this mess themselves, the cost could run into the trillions—rivaling even some proposed climate change solutions.

Instead, space-faring nations should create an Orbital Debris Removal and Recycling Fund (ODRRF).  Satellite operators would pay relatively small fees to their governments, who would contribute the money to the Fund.  These governments already charge satellite operators large licensing and regulatory fees.  Private companies would be paid bounties out of the Fund for successfully removing debris according to the debris-creation-avoidance value assigned to each object.  Apart from the obvious long-term benefits of preserving the usability of the space environment, satellite operators would benefit in the short term from reduced insurance rates and fewer mysterious satellite outages caused by collisions we cannot track.  With the right funding mechanism, entrepreneurs can solve this problem.  Governments must encourage innovation rather than crippling industry or creating yet another large government program to build and operate systems when the expertise for doing so clearly resides in the private sector.

Better tracking data would be required to maximize the effectiveness of debris removal prizes.  Since much of that data is classified, only a trusted intermediary could get American and Russian defense officials to work together.  But the largest obstacle is legal: While maritime law encourages the cleanup of abandoned vessels as hazards to navigation, space law discourages debris remediation by failing to recognize debris as abandoned property, and making it difficult to transfer ownership of, and liability for, objects in space—even junk.  By adapting maritime precedents, space law could make orbital debris removal feasible, once the right economic incentives are in place.  Entrepreneurs may even find ways to recycle and reuse on orbit the nearly 2,000 metric tons of space debris, which includes ultra-high grade aerospace aluminum and other precious metals.

We must solve the orbital debris problem, if only so that satellites can continue collecting the climate data we need to make informed decisions about carbon emissions.  But how we solve this problem should offer valuable lessons for all environmental policymaking.  All this cause needs is a champion who can rally policymakers in the U.S. and abroad, not with scare tactics but with a relentless optimism about the power of entrepreneurs to solve even the most difficult environmental problems through innovation, and about the bright promise of humanity’s future—on Earth and in space.

James Dunstan practices space and technology law at Garvey Schubert Barer.  Berin Szoka is a Senior Fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Director of the Space Frontier Foundation, and member of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.  The views expressed in this report are their own, and are not necessarily the views of the PFF board, fellows or staff.

[1] See generally James E. Dunstan & Bob Werb, Legal and Economic Implications of Orbital Debris Removal:  A Free Market Approach, Space Frontier Foundation presentation to International Conference on Orbital Debris Removal, December 8-10, 2009, Reston, VA.

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