DEBRIS OR NOT DEBRIS

Talking Tea, Trash and Destiny with Rising Star Harriet Brettle 

What does the future hold for the low-earth orbit frontier, an interface that has made everyday life, from internet-enabled global interconnectivity to GPS and climate forecasting, an unremarkable reality? Why and how has a high-flying financier entered an industry which, going by prevailing wisdom, is the preserve of the Neil De Grasse Tysons, Tim Peakes or Elon Musks of the world?  What does Britain have which America doesn’t? Harriet Brettle tells all.

Space Debris is the dry catchall term describing the space shrapnel adrift far above our heads - I say far, it’s as heavenly as the distance between Paris and Amsterdam, about one vertical Eurostar trip away. With us currently tracking 26,000 pieces larger than cricket balls orbiting our little rock and another half million the size of Creme Eggs keeping them company, space really does struggle to fit our popular conception of a vast and empty wilderness. That’s before you reach the sobering footnote: a hundred million more pieces as big as M&Ms are shooting past at twice the speed of a bullet.

The trouble is, these critters are too small for Earth-based tracking and so satellite operators need to stay constantly vigilant for any damage dealt to shielding panels and sensitive external equipment. This has become such an annoyance in recent years that during a resupply mission to the International Space Station in December 2017, NASA installed a Space Debris Sensor to monitor the immediate surrounding environment for pieces between 0.05mm and 0.5mm in size, to improve our understanding of the cluttered orbital environment. 

Few things illustrate the reality of this threat (or German ingenuity) better then when European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst had no alternative but to fix a breach by sticking his finger inside a 2mm debris hole in the Station’s hull back in August 2018. The culprit was suspected to have been a fleck of paint or a bolt from an old satellite. As NASA Ground Control dryly observed at the time, “I don't think that's the best remedy for it."

On the 15th January, I find myself in Old Street, London, a neighbourhood cobwebbed in luxury apartment-sponsored construction site canvas and open-plan kitchens surveying the plebeian traffic below. My meet is at the aptly named Ozone Coffee, the sort of chic café stroke bar stroke restaurant that strokes GQ Lifestyle editors in just the right places. My guest: Harriet Brettle, a finance analyst turned next-generation space-guru set on making space sustainability a reality. Her forte: bringing the issue of space debris into the competitive commercial and public spotlight.

"In the UK there is less of this big budget space exploration...I’d say the industries are different, the UK can be a little more reserved than the US.”

Mathematical ability drove Harriet from home in Britain to find fortune across the pond; first as a financier and then, unexpectedly, as an atypical intruder in the space industry. As a British export living in Texas, I am eager to learn of Harriet’s biggest culture shock moment.

“For me [it] was the go-getting attitude. People feel very driven and passionate. They know what they want to do and are not afraid to ask or go out and do it.”

Stepping through a Star-Spangled airport into the glare of a new life was intimidating for us both but we agree that the lack of metaphorical if not physical baggage was liberating.

“You can kind of reinvent yourself. I was actually nervous coming back to [Britain] because I’d never had a real job in the space industry in the UK. I didn’t know what it was going to be like [as] I’d spent this year and a bit in the US [right by] JPL.” 

For the uninitiated, ‘JPL’ stands for NASA’s immensely impressive Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California - the epitome of the major investment in outer space seen far less often on the European side of the Pond. I want to know if there are other differences between American and British approaches to space.

“Yes, in the UK there is less of this big budget space exploration but there’s a lot more spin-off from the space industry, like satellite applications. So, I’d say the industries are different, the UK can be a little more reserved than the US.”

A  finance analyst intern at JP Morgan, a graduate analyst at the Bank of England for two years, then uprooting herself to become a Senior Analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, before returning to the UK to continue her work at the Bank of England, Harriet has better credentials than most BA Mathematics graduates could dream of (and only seven years after leaving university). Finance seems to have been the foregone conclusion. What changed? Harriet characterises this shift in focus from ‘I.O.U.’s to ‘U.F.O.’s as taking the “scenic route”.

“Honestly, it’s great to say with hindsight that, ‘Obviously, I’ve got this finance experience and then I got this space experience and now I’ve combined the two,’ but you know, it wasn’t that smart of me. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I left university and had no idea what I wanted to do. I had enjoyed [JP Morgan] but wanted to focus more on looking at the bigger picture in the financial ecosystem”.

But as good an opportunity as her time at the Bank of England was, the underlying subject was something she simply couldn’t feel passionate about. Finance simply didn’t inspire.

“Before, I’d been focused on ‘What can I achieve in like the next six months or year?’ and then, when I started to think about the bigger picture I was like, ‘actually, in ten years’ time, do I want to be here in this industry?’ Maybe not.”

"I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I left university and had no idea what I wanted to do."

While in New York, Harriet saw an opportunity to satiate a passion and hunger for space by volunteering at public outreach events for The Planetary Society, an organisation advocating for citizen involvement in space exploration. Public engagement struck a chord, but how she might translate that into a career wasn’t obvious.

“I didn’t see how I could do this as a real job because I’m a math major.  I’m not an engineer, and I can’t be a rocket scientist and I don’t want to be an astronaut so how could I combine those interests?”

"...there were things in the exoplanet research field...where I could see how my finance experience could be useful."

Undeterred, Harriet returned to the UK and took evening classes in astrophysics. Finding a bridge between finance and the space industry became the big problem for Harriet to solve.  Her solution lay in statistics—specifically their use in the hunt for exoplanets: the promisingly rocky, Earth-sized worlds beyond our solar system.

“Somewhat on a whim, I took a vacation to spend a week in California doing this workshop. It was a game changer because I realised that there were things in the exoplanet research field, particularly the use of statistics, where I could see how my finance experience could be useful."

"So, I used that to basically frame my application reference to graduate programs to be like, ‘Look, I might not have a traditional route in, but I have relevant experience,’ so that helped me get into Caltech and study planets.”

"...there were things in the exoplanet research field...where I could see how my finance experience could be useful."

Undeterred, Harriet returned to the UK and took evening classes in astrophysics. Finding a bridge between finance and the space industry became the big problem for Harriet to solve.  Her solution lay in statistics - specifically their use in the hunt for exoplanets: the promisingly rocky, Earth-sized worlds beyond our solar system.

“Somewhat on a whim, I took a vacation to spend a week in California doing this workshop. It was a game changer because I realised that there were things in the exoplanet research field, particularly the use of statistics, where I could see how my finance experience could be useful."

"So, I used that to basically frame my application reference to graduate programs to be like, ‘Look, I might not have a traditional route in, but I have relevant experience,’ so that helped me get into Caltech and study planets.”

Harriet arrived intending to complete a PhD but left with a Masters. The reason? The big picture: pure science’s nitty gritty details could have meant missing out on holistic space strategising.

“At Caltech I started thinking, ‘If I’m not going to be a scientist in the industry, what other options are there?’ I still wanted to do something that was technical. I liked the problem-solving element. So for the business side - I get to do all these different things right?”

However, we agree that a Masters in Planetary Science must make Harriet at least half a scientist. A bit like a Geography degree makes a student half an artist. The drinks arrive and we readjust on our bar stools, the footrests hovering two inches below comfortable. For Harriet, an elegant glass teapot, and for me, a very disappointing espresso.

I feel duty-bound to prod a traditionally touchy line of questioning: why should we pursue this sector when there are so many immediate challenges right here back on earth?

“For me, it really represents our absolute limit of human achievement. We are going and doing the most incredible things that we have never been able to do before in the history of humanity; we go to the Moon, we explore planets in our Solar System, we go and visit asteroids—it’s just incredible, its awe-inspiring.”

"For me, it really represents the absolute limit of human achievement."

"...the thing I love the most about space exploration is you can engage with it no matter where you are on a technical or interest level"

“I think the thing I love the most about space exploration is you can engage with it no matter where you are on a technical or interest level, right? You can be a kid who just stares at the stars and thinks they’re cool, or you could be an expert in black holes, or you could be anything in between and there is some way you can engage with space.”

“Why do I think we should care? The space industry does way more for people in their everyday lives that we take for granted. Satellite technology is an easy one because we rely on satellites every day, right? Whether you’re using GPS, whether you’re getting money out of your bank account, whether it is checking the weather forecast: we use satellites to do immediate weather forecasting to inform our models, but also for long-term climate change, right?"

"I don’t think it’s an either or. I can understand that there are shorter term problems that do need solving, but satellites and space technology can help you do those in a more efficient way.”

"...we use satellites to do immediate weather forecasting to inform our models, but also for long-term climate change"

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 docking and 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 President Trump’s codification of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military in December last year 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 it is also an all too obvious problem staring us in the face, 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 being launched currently, 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.”

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 in many ways, this is 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, while blind.

According to Dr 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, this exists in the context of the tens of millions of 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 in space 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 is an intriguing solution, a steppingstone 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 efficient access to orbit being the most obvious example. Organisations 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 highlights, 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 is voting on a promising new set of sustainability rules on 23rd April, 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 would also mandate any satellite operating above the orbit of the ISS (higher than 400km) to be capable of manoeuvring, sparking concerns that this would hamstring the growth of the affordable and increasingly popular nanosatellite market by mandating costly propulsion methods, and harm the American market if foreign governments do not issue similar guidelines.

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. If the FCC Board of Commissioners pass the measures, it will be a bold and authoritative statement on the seriousness with which the space sector’s largest stakeholder is taking the issue of sustainability.

On the subject of uncertain futures, where does Harriet see herself in twenty years? In a Trumpified America or Brexited Britain? Or, perhaps, on an independent Moon trading on WTO rules operating some sort of points-based immigration scheme?

“I see myself as probably staying in the UK, and feel like I’m very lucky to have stumbled onto an incredible company doing amazing things. I’m really excited to see what we do in the next few years.”

Harriet makes it clear that when all was said and done, she feels passionate about fostering the UK as a driving force behind the global space economy. Indeed, our muddled nation of shopkeepers is very lucky to have kept someone like her in the fold. In many ways, Harriet’s is the ideal homecoming, with her years of reflection and contemplation abroad necessary to make the career leap from finance to space, two industries that make a mockery of borders and institutions (and bank accounts) alike. Harriet insists that on reflection, she wouldn’t have done anything different.

“I like having a non-traditional background because I think it helps give you perspective. The only real thing I’d tell my younger self is to have more confidence in what you want to do. If you’re interested in something, go and do it because…with the job I have at Astroscale now, the company didn’t even exist when I was at university! If I had waited until the company existed before crafting a career towards it then, you know, you’re too late!”

So, pursue interests regardless of your background?

“Yes exactly, and really embrace it, because I apologised for it for so long and then realised actually, it was useful.”

As watch hands trespass six o’clock and I say goodbye to Harriet, I reflect on the valuable lesson that space debris can hold for all of us: we cannot afford complacency and allow crises to be the only triggers for transition and progress. The interstellar flotsam crisis might be overstated, but can we risk the alternative? The stakes will never be higher; they are, in fact, infinite.