It’s time to reckon with space junk
We’re well into our seventh decade of treating outer space like a dumpster. Sixty-three years ago, on Oct. 4, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite. Its rocket body was the first piece of orbital debris. Little did we know what had begun. Since then, the amount of space junk has increased astronomically, especially in low-Earth orbit (altitudes less than 1,000 km from Earth), due to its ease of access for satellite placement.
Since it’s not in our air, our water or even in our sight, it’s hard for space junk to seem like much of a problem. But it is — it could even jeopardize humanity’s spacefaring ambitions. Exploration and science, as well as habitation and commerce, depend on a safe and reliable path to space. Given the potentially enormous wealth from the space economy, even those with more terrestrial concerns should be worried. Fortunately, thanks to the space policies of the Trump administration, we have a chance to fight back against space debris.
NASA defines orbital debris as “any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function.” Currently, there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris softball-sized or larger, more than 500,000 pieces marble-sized or larger and uncountable millions of smaller pieces. Given their high velocity — impact speeds average 10 km/s — even small pieces can damage or destroy a spacecraft. In fact, the International Space Station recently executed an “avoidance maneuver” to dodge a piece of debris.
Orbits get more crowded every year. The problem isn’t just space debris. Functioning satellites are contributing to orbital congestion, too. For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is planning to put more than 10,000 small satellites into orbit over the next decade as part of its Starlink program for satellite internet access. The more traffic in orbit, the greater the risk of a collision. The nightmare scenario, known as Kessler syndrome, is a runaway series of collisions, causing ever more debris and collisions.
Space debris is a problem for all the spacefaring nations, especially the big three: The United States, Russia and China. Yet international organizations have had little success at reducing celestial litter. The United Nations produced guidelines and proposed standards, but these lack the force of law. The foundational document of public international space law, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, recognizes states’ continuing jurisdiction over their space objects, which can complicate debris removal efforts.
Of course, it’s tough to build international consensus on anything, and, what with all the fires to put out on planet Earth, progress on the space debris problem isn’t of highest priority. In all likelihood, we’ll have to pursue piecemeal solutions at the national level. Thankfully, there have been promising signs that the U.S. government is stepping up its debris control efforts.
In 2018, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3, which assigned space traffic management (STM) responsibilities to the Commerce Department. STM means “the planning, coordination, and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in the space environment.” It’s crucial for protecting space assets, including from debris.
Transferring STM duties to Commerce requires a significant administrative shift. Currently the Department of Defense is responsible for civil STM, which includes warning satellite operators of possible collisions. Within Commerce, the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) is eager to take over. It sought $10 million in funding from Congress, much of which would be used to facilitate the transition. But Congress was reluctant to comply.
A recent report by the National Academy of Public Administration vindicated OSC. The panel of experts responsible for the report concluded that Commerce is best suited to STM duties. Both Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and OSC Director Kevin O’Connell praised the report, affirming a willingness to undertake STM responsibilities. This is great news. An office devoted to space issues, with sufficient appropriations from Congress, can be focused, staffed and provisioned to work for space sustainability.
Given U.S. space ambitions, maintaining orbital access is absolutely necessary. Recent efforts to increase the economic viability of space activity, including the use and transfer of celestial resources, won’t bear fruit unless we overcome the tragedy of the commons in orbit. While the task is daunting, OSC’s recent efforts are a good first step to preserve the conditions necessary for us to become a permanent spacefaring civilization.
Alexander William Salter is an economics professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a Young Voices Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @alexwalter.
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