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Solve the space debris problem

Solve the space debris problem

A computer-generated image that depicts space debris as seen from Earth̵

7;s orbit. The two main debris fields are the ring of objects in geosynchronous orbit and the cloud of objects in near-Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

The room is always full. Aging satellites and space debris are crowded into near-Earth orbit, and the launch of new satellites increases the risk of collision. According to a new study, the most effective way to solve the space debris problem is not to trap debris or to desorb old satellites. It is an international agreement to charge operators “orbital use fees” for each satellite that is placed in orbit.

Orbital usage fees would also increase the long-term value of the space industry, said economist Matthew Burgess, CIRES fellow and co-author of the new paper. By reducing the future risk of collision between satellites and debris, an annual fee of about $ 235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040, he and his colleagues concluded in one today National Academy of Sciences procedure.

“Space is a common resource, but companies don’t take into account the cost of their satellites to other operators when deciding whether to launch or not,” said Burgess, who is also an assistant professor of environmental studies and a faculty member in economics the University of Colorado Boulder. “We need a policy that allows satellite operators to directly take into account the cost of their launches to other operators.”

An estimated 20,000 objects – including satellites and space debris – are currently crowded into near-Earth orbit. It is the Commons’ latest tragedy, the researchers said: every operator starts to launch more and more satellites until their private risk of collision corresponds to the value of the orbiting satellite.

So far, the proposed solutions have been primarily technological or administrative in nature, said Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College and lead author of the newspaper. Technological corrections include removing space debris from orbit using nets, spearguns or lasers. Deorbing a satellite at the end of its life is a management solution.

Ultimately, technical or administrative solutions like this don’t solve the rubble problem because they don’t change the incentives for operators. For example, removing space debris could motivate operators to launch more satellites – further crowding near-Earth orbit, increasing the risk of collision, and increasing costs. “This is more of an incentive problem than a technical problem. What matters is that the incentives are right,” said Rao.

According to Rao and his colleagues, a better approach to the problem of space debris is to introduce a fee for the use of orbit – a tax on orbiting satellites. “It is not the same as an entry fee,” said Rao. “Launch fees alone cannot cause operators to deorb their satellites when needed, and it is not the launch, but the orbiting satellite that does the damage.”

Orbital usage fees can be direct fees or tradable permits, and they can also be orbit-specific because satellites in different orbits cause different collision risks. Most importantly, the fee for each satellite is calculated to reflect the cost of the industry to put another satellite into orbit, including the projected current and future costs of additional collision risk and the production of space debris – the cost operators do not currently consider their starts. “In our model, it is important that satellite operators bear the cost of the collision risk that is imposed on other operators,” said Daniel Kaffine, professor of economics and RASEI fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the paper.

And these fees would increase over time to accommodate the increasing value of clean orbits. According to the researchers’ model, the optimal fee would increase by 14 percent per year and reach around $ 235,000 per satellite year by 2040.

The researchers found that all countries launching satellites would have to participate for an orbital fee approach to work – that’s about a dozen that launch satellites with their own launchers, and more than 30 that have satellites. In addition, each country would have to charge the same per-collision risk unit for each satellite in orbit, although each country could generate revenue separately. The countries are already adopting similar approaches to carbon tax and fisheries management.

In this study, Rao and his colleagues compared fees for orbital use with business as usual (i.e. open access to space) and technological corrections such as the removal of space debris. They found that orbital usage fees forced operators to weigh the expected lifetime value of their satellites directly against the industry costs associated with putting another satellite into orbit and creating additional risk. In other scenarios, operators still had an incentive to run into space, hoping to gain some value before it got too crowded.

With orbital usage fees, the long-term value of the satellite industry would increase from around $ 600 billion in the usual scenario to around $ 3 trillion, researchers found. The increase in value results from the reduction of collisions and collision-related costs such as the launch of replacement satellites.

Orbital usage fees could also help satellite operators solve the problem of space debris. “In other sectors, fighting the Commons tragedy has often been a catch-up game with significant social costs, but the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate,” said Burgess.

The cost of space debris: collisions in space are becoming more likely

More information:
Akhil Rao el al., “Orbital usage fees could more than quadruple the value of the space industry.” PNAS (2020). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1921260117

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University of Colorado at Boulder

Solving the space debris problem (2020, May 25)
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