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.”
“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.”
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 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.