Policy remains critical to incentivizing space debris removal efforts

On March 10, 2023, NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy (“OTPS”) released a report, Cost and Benefit Analysis of Orbital Debris Remediation. OTPS resides under NASA’s Office of the Administrator and provides strategic advice, research, and policy recommendations for NASA’s leadership and the space community. The report is NASA’s attempt to answer the question, is space debris worth cleaning up?

The report begins by saying that space debris includes, “abandoned vehicle stages, non-functional satellites, and fragments resulting from collisions or explosions.” But this is where OTPS’s definition ends. It is worth noting that the international space law framework does not have much more of an answer. “Space debris” is not mentioned in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and there are no globally-adopted mandates requiring a state to remove its debris. The debate over the functional definition of space debris and the legal obligations states have to remove it is very much a live issue and one that OTPS did not address here.

OTPS’s report is admittedly limited to a cost-benefit analysis of the various remediation methods. The authors note that cleaning up space debris has significant upfront cost, but the benefits, both cost-saving and non-monetary, may not materialize for many years. The report discusses the value in fulfilling a sense of duty to preserve the sustainability of space for future generations, fulfilling moral responsibility to other space operators, or ensuring the safety of spacecraft and astronauts. The authors attempt to consider whether businesses are incentivized to make large investments today on the promise of these intangible benefits tomorrow.

Key Takeaways:

  • Hidden and known costs of interacting with debris are staggering. Costs of interacting with space debris in space can result from any and all of the following: specific design and shielding on satellites to anticipate a collision, insurance costs, delays created by avoiding debris at launch time, monitoring labor hours, propellant per maneuver to avoid collisions in space, lost operations per maneuver, hardware damage per collision, lost operations per collision, satellite or propellant disposal, and/or uncontrolled reentry. These costs can be felt in both the short and long term and can be catastrophic for a business or state, depending on the nature of the interaction.
  • The most effective remediation method could be a combination of nudging large debris and removing small debris with laser systems. The report finds that methods for removing small debris 1-10 cm have the quickest net benefits while nudging large debris helps to avoid the largest catastrophic collisions. Using laser systems in this way demonstrates the versatility and low cost of engaging lasers in debris remediation efforts.
  • The near-term benefits of remediation are significant enough on their own to incentivize immediate action. The authors unexpectedly found that the benefits realized from engaging in remediation efforts now would, in fact, be worth it. Because the report considered various remediation methods and benefits felt industry-wide, the aggregate results justify the cost-benefit decision.

But most of all, the report provides a springboard for advancing new policy to spur remediation efforts. The authors acknowledge that the benefits it found were almost entirely in the reduction of risk to satellite operators, not in reductions of the actual cost. The authors also acknowledge that the risk reductions to one individual operator would likely be too small to create an incentive to fund remediation. According to the report, this leaves the government in the best position to take action and develop policies to bridge the gap.

If you have any questions about space law or procurement matters, please contact a member of the Government Solutions Group.


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