During the first meeting of the Biden National Space Council, Vice President Kamala Harris stressed the importance of outer space for national security, economic development and environmental security. The future security and resilience of space depends on combating more than 8,000 metric tons of dead objects already in orbit, including at least 900,000 individual pieces of debris that could be deadly to satellites cluttering up the most frequently used parts Earth’s orbit today. . To do this, the United States needs to implement a holistic Space Environment Management Program (SEM).and the most important missing element of this program is the development of rehabilitation facilities that can remove debris from orbit and help clean up the space environment.
Rehabilitation is the act of canceling or stopping something that is often used in the context of environmental damage. In the case of space, the simulation is done by NASA and other space agencies shows that we should start removing at least 5-10 of the most massive debris objects each year to prevent future debris from colliding. Collisions involving these large objects can generate huge amounts of new debris, which then increases the likelihood of a subsequent collision, creating even more debris through a cascading collision process known as Kessler syndrome. At the same time, we also need to clean up the hundreds of thousands of small debris objects that already revolve around the Earth. These “bullets” are too small to be reliably tracked, and therefore cannot be actively predicted and dodged, but can still maim or destroy a satellite in a collision.
Despite National Space Policy 2010 jointly instructing NASA and the Department of Defense to develop active debris removal (ADR) capabilities, very little work has been done. This inaction may be due to a combination political and bureaucratic factors. Meanwhile, Europe, Japanand United Kingdom all recently announced funding programs to develop rehabilitation opportunities and conduct initial demonstration missions. These international initiatives mean that action to combat space debris is not taking place in the United States. The United States needs to begin building its own successful rehabilitation program and join these global efforts.
A “successful” U.S. rehabilitation program has several requirements. First, it must promote the broad growth of an industry that creates jobs and economic opportunities. The in-orbit satellite service community, which includes ADR and other potential rehabilitation opportunities, is a nascent but potentially powerful industrial sector. Satellite service is a set of capabilities that could include and improve many other parts of the space industry, as well as more sustainable, efficient and sophisticated space capabilities, which in turn create broad economic development and opportunities.
Second, the national rehabilitation program should address regulatory and legal issues, not just the engineering issues that accompany reclamation. In the most complex problems, science and technology often prove to be the easy part, while the cultural norms, regulations and implications of public policy required for adoption and implementation prove to be much more complex. If we add the international character of space, these “non-technical” aspects are on the critical path of success and should be an integral part of the program, not an idea.
Finally, a successful rehabilitation program in the U.S. must create a sustainable market, not just government spending. This is probably the hardest element to achieve and the most important. One-time government contracts and prize competitions are unlikely to achieve this goal on their own, especially when faced with a major technological leap, non-technical regulatory barriers, and a lack of a well-established market for customers. The latest history of space awards such as Ansari X Award and Google Lunar X-Prize demonstrate this. Although they are useful for generating public interest and advancing technology, they have not had good success in creating a sustainable and long-term commercial industry.
So what is the way for the United States to create a rehabilitation program that meets all of these criteria? The best way to approach this is to simulate such a program on another successful space program – the ability to transport commercial cargo and NASA crew in low Earth orbit. This was done through a set of programs developed and managed by NASA over the past two decades that included public and private cost-sharing for research and development, competitions to select multiple winners that met government capacity thresholds and were commercially viable, and Promise government service contracts at the end. As a result, the United States now has commercial opportunities to deliver cargo and crew into low Earth orbit. much less than it would cost to develop traditional state capacity. Moreover, other public and private actors are now using the same commercial opportunities that can create reliable market leading to further innovation and lower costs.
A broader concept at work is known as advance market commitment (AMC) and most recently used to begin the extremely successful development of an mRNA vaccine to combat COVID-19. According to the AMC model, the government, donors or other organizations promise to buy or subsidize a certain number of products at a premium, which gives a market incentive for companies to develop these products. The products can then be purchased by other public or private sector entities at market price.
The same approach needs to be adapted to develop a diverse set of commercial opportunities to eliminate orbital debris. The program should aim to develop a set of options for the removal of both large and small orbital debris, as well as timely collision prevention which can prevent collisions without actually removing debris and future technologies for reusing or recycling abandoned space objects. It should also include a commitment from the U.S. federal government to procure the removal or reclamation of a certain amount of garbage per year and should be run by a civilian agency such as NASA or the Department of Commerce. The latter condition is crucial to help offset the international perception of such dual-use capabilities being developed by military forces such as the U.S. Space Force.
Ideally, the program will lead to the development of a robust set of commercial rehabilitation opportunities from several companies that all governments can then use to reduce the immediate and long-term threat posed by orbital debris. To this end, the program should include demonstrations of rehabilitation involving both different countries and facilities, such as an American company that removes a space object not from the US, or vice versa. This would help strengthen several legal and political gray areas, which are currently an obstacle to a reliable market for the elimination of blockages in orbit.
Finally, the program should include funding for risk research, cost-benefit analysis, and orbital debris economics to support future policy decisions. This study is needed to develop the best tools to assess the risks and costs associated with orbital debris for future space use, including commercial development and investment, which ultimately provides industry confidence that their technology and financial investment will pay off.
The vision of space activities and opportunities that will help solve problems on Earth and move humanity forward is clear, but it is only possible if we start managing the space environment today. The United States must fulfill its role as an international leader in space by stepping up its efforts to manage the space environment, which includes major investments in rehabilitation. This will go a long way in ensuring that the vision of a safe, sustainable and stable space environment becomes a reality.
Brian Weeden is the Director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation and has more than two decades of experience in space operations and policy. He is also the Executive Director of the Consortium for Meetings and Service Operations (CONFERS), an industry group that includes several companies developing rehabilitation facilities. His wife works at Astroscale, a member company of CONFERS.
This article originally appeared in February 2022 of SpaceNews magazine.
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