Harriet’s present role as Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale is particularly intriguing. Working for a private company of self-identified ‘Space Sweepers’, tackling our space junk problem must carry a host of unprecedented challenges and opportunities. But when push comes to shove, space debris is such a vast problem that intermittent private clean-up efforts are just drops in the ocean. I pose this conundrum to Harriet.
“So, you’re right. Space debris is a big problem that is going to require more than just one company removing it. The way we see it is that in order to address the problem, you need to be able to develop the technology that can actually do something about [it].”
Astroscale is prepping for ELSA-d, a mission designed to demonstrate the feasibility of the proximity rendezvous and magnetic docking technologies necessary for debris removal—in essence, UFO fishing. By launching two objects into orbit in a single payload—the Servicer (magnet rod), and the Client (magnetic fish)—the company hopes to demonstrate that, alongside exhibiting a host of impressively complex core technologies, fishing really is for everyone.
“It’s a classic environmental problem, like plastic in the oceans or pollution in the atmosphere. Everyone contributes to the problem, no one wants to take individual responsibility."
It’s the large failed satellites, the high mass objects in space which Astroscale is prioritising. After all, as Harriet and others emphasise, it is much easier to bring down one satellite then wait for it to collide and go about collecting a thousand little pieces like an upset box of supersonic Lego. But that still leaves us with the problem of incentives. Harriet’s main responsibility is to make the commercial and institutional business case for space junk removal. However, the difficulty of getting this issue on the agenda now is that space debris is only a problem, not yet a crisis.
“It’s a classic environmental problem, like plastic in the oceans or pollution in the atmosphere. Everyone contributes to the problem, no one wants to take individual responsibility. If we look at history, things don’t happen until there’s a catastrophic event…the global financial crisis, oil spills [a freak international pandemic, perhaps] and suddenly you need regulations to stop this kind of thing from happening, right? So, we’re trying to be proactive, but that’s very difficult to do.”
For context, it took just two collision events to almost single-handedly double the amount of debris in space. In 2007, China’s ego-flexing resulted in a deeply irresponsible anti-satellite test that generated the largest recorded amount of space debris from a single incident in history. Couple that with the impact between an active US Iridium satellite and a piece of defunct Russian hardware in 2009 known as the Iridium-Cosmos collision, and you get a sense of how terrifyingly easy it is to escalate risk by several orders of magnitude.
Depressingly, it is unlikely that such foolish antics will become less common. In March 2019, India followed China’s example with an anti-satellite missile test, while former President Trump’s codification of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military in December 2018 is the comical cherry on the cake of space militarisation which, although gradual, seems unstoppable in the present geopolitical climate. When you throw in the rapidly expanding commercial market, runaway space debris will, as Harriet puts it, “sneak up on us.”
Perhaps. Or, perhaps the problem has no need to sneak, with the likes of Amazon’s internet-facilitating Project Kuiper or Space X’s Starlink network brazenly representing orbital ticking time-bombs. Take Starlink, a mega-constellation of satellites currently being launched, which has received permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to build a flotilla 12,000 strong by the end of the decade. To help contextualise this figure, fewer than 9,000 objects in total have ever been launched into space. Ever. As Harriet elaborates,
“The problem is that the amount of useable space is finite. The more satellites that we put into space, the more debris we get, which means you have a higher risk of collisions. If we compromise one of those orbits that we rely on, particularly for certain services, we’re really putting ourselves in a challenging position.”
Like an interstellar bin collection?
"So, I’ve been looking at the business models of bin bags!”
A conceptual timelapse showing the buildup of space debris over time in low-earth orbit.
“[I]t’s interesting you bring up bin bags because part of [what] I’ve done in my job is look at how other industries have solved this problem. So, I’ve been looking at the business models of bin bags!
That sounds stupid, but I’ve learned there’s two ways that people can deal with waste removal. One, is that you buy a bunch of bin bags and the removal of those bin bags is included in the cost, and the other is that you can pay a monthly subscription to have a bin outside your office, and then the council can come and take it away whenever you need it to, right?
What does that model look like? Do we charge a satellite operator every time we go and bring down a satellite, or, do we charge a subscription fee so every year they pay us an amount of money and we commit to keeping that orbit clean to some extent?”
“Exactly right. In terms of incentivising customers to pay, the big challenge we have is that unlike other industries there’s no regulation to enforce people to do this, to enforce keeping space clean…”
…and there’s no body to enforce that regulation if it existed.
“What we’re working on is developing the commercial incentives. I’m doing a piece of work right now with the University of Southampton, with Professor Hugh Lewis who is an expert in the modelling of the orbital environment. Looking at theoretical models, you can test what kind of debris removal strategies are effective, and then quantify the effect and the value of those strategies. We’ll be able to say, ‘Look, if you want to protect the orbital environment in which you are operating, we can mitigate your collision risk,’ because we will be able to quantify that in some way. So, the idea is really to strengthen those arguments.”
It is an intriguing solution, a stepping stone toward a fully-fledged orbital insurance policy which could roughly calculate the risk of certain orbits and provide a financial incentive for sustainable rocket launches and satellite deorbiting. While innovative in capturing the commercial self-interest of asset damage mitigation, it cannot be a standalone solution. Ultimately, what we are discussing is private self-regulation as the best-case approach to the problem. Has there been any sort of progress in looking for an institutional actor to play a more governmental role in enforcing these ‘regulations’?
“Right now, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) are both developing Active Debris Removal Missions.”
But as Harriet concedes, “they’re basically looking for commercial companies to remove pieces of their own debris”, outsourcing solutions to companies similar to Astroscale rather than developing their own. This isn’t necessarily bad. The private sector has been able to offer more effective solutions to space problems than national space agencies in the past, with cost-efficient access to orbit being the most obvious example. Groups with catchy names like the ‘United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs’ and the ‘Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’ develop long-term sustainability guidelines, and space operators are encouraged to voluntarily share orbital data. However, as Harriet points out, there is no legal enforcement of these expectations. She ends her assessment on an optimistic note;
“There’s good movement and we just need to keep on going in that direction and actually see it through.”
Let us all hope Harriet is right. The Federal Communications Commission voted on a promising new set of sustainability rules on 23rd April 2020, including an expansion of satellite reporting requirements and an adjustment of the licensing process to favour companies committing to greater transparency for their operations. Controversially, these new rules mandate any satellite operating above the orbit of the ISS to be capable of manoeuvring, sparking concerns that this might hamstring the growth of the affordable and increasingly popular nanosatellite market by mandating costly propulsion methods. It could also damage the American market if foreign governments do not issue similar guidelines. The verdict is out on this one.
But the new rules do also develop the fledgling system of collision liability currently in place by requiring operators to insure their satellites in the event that during their lifetime they damage another. Despite the criticism these guidelines are facing, it is very easy to lose sight of the risk posed by inaction, a vegetative reality all too common in the regulatory arena where this many actors need to reach agreement. So the passing of the measures does represent a bold statement on the seriousness with which the space sector’s largest stakeholder is taking the issue of sustainability.