Space is vast, yet useable space is cramped and, ironically, increasingly claustrophobic. That is not to say we should necessarily be opposed to these new deployment initiatives, but we should all feel uncomfortable that such an extensive build-up is happening in an environment mostly managed by international agreements legislated in the 1960s and 70s.
Compounding this is the suppression of space data. This sounds marginal, but this may be the problem which needs to be prioritised. If space operators do not have complete information on what is in orbit and where and when it is heading, it is not just like flying a plane without radar—it is like flying through airspace saturated with pieces of every aircraft from the previous fifty years, blind.
According to Dr T.S. Kelso, the Operations Manager for the Space Data Center, of the 26,000 pieces of large assets in orbit, 2,000 of these are missing because they have not been tracked for more than 30 days, and around another 500 are classified for national security reasons, regardless of whether the satellite is dead or alive. Another 4,000 assets have not shared up-to-date data because existing data-sharing policies place no obligation on operators to do so. As a reminder, these satellites exist in the context of the tens of millions of small pieces hurtling around the planet which cannot be tracked.
The best that stakeholders can do right now is to volunteer as much information as possible about their assets to maximise space situational awareness, reducing the risk of further collisions and by extension, debris creation. As Charity Weeden, the Vice President of Global Space Policy at Astroscale (US) argues, this is the key to cultivating a positive, incentives-based culture that is necessary to normalize space sustainability as the de facto form of operation. However, until multilateral international agreement is reached on data sharing requirements, the situation is unlikely to improve. How this can be achieved is, for the moment, unclear, but evidently space junk and data cannot be treated as separate issues.
So, are we running out of space in Space? In short, yes. Can we effectively manage the orbital traffic jam? Maybe. I’m keen to know what specific strategies Harriet has to make space operators behave more sustainably. In the UK, if you have a problem with uncollected bin bags, you complain to your local council. Who do you complain to in space?
“[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?”
"So, I’ve been looking at the business models of bin bags!”
Like an interstellar bin collection?
“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's 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.