During the first National Space Council meeting of the Biden administration, Vice President Kamala Harris reinforced the importance of outer space for national security, economic development, and environmental security. The future security and sustainability of space hinges on dealing with the over 8,000 metric tons of dead objects already in orbit, including at least 900,000 individual pieces of debris that can be lethal to satellites, which clutter the most heavily-used parts of Earth orbit today. To do this, the United States needs to implement a holistic Space Environment Management (SEM) program, and the most important missing element of that program is the development of remediation capabilities that can remove debris from orbit and help clean up the space environment.
Remediation is the act of reversing or stopping something, often used in the context of environmental damage. In the case of space, modeling done by NASA and other space agencies shows that we need to start removing at least 5-10 of the most massive debris objects each year to prevent the creation of future debris from collisions. Collisions involving these large objects can generate huge amounts of new debris that then increases the chance of another collision, creating yet more debris through a cascading collision process known as the Kessler Syndrome. At the same time, we also need to clean up the hundreds of thousands of small debris objects already whipping around the Earth. These “bullets” are too small to track reliably and thus cannot be actively predicted and dodged but could still cripple or destroy a satellite in a collision.
Despite the 2010 National Space Policy jointly tasking 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 of political and bureaucratic factors. Meanwhile, Europe, Japan, and the United Kingdom have all recently announced programs to fund the development of remediation capabilities and conduct initial demonstration missions. These international initiatives mean that the action to address space debris is being led elsewhere than the United States. The United States needs to get moving now to create a successful remediation program of its own and join this global effort.
A “successful” U.S. remediation program has several requirements. First, it must foster broad industry growth that creates jobs and economic opportunities. The on-orbit satellite servicing community, which includes ADR and other potential remediation capabilities, is a nascent but potentially powerful industrial sector. Satellite servicing represents a set of capabilities that could enable and enhance many other parts of the space industry and more sustainable, efficient, and sophisticated space capabilities that, in turn, create widespread economic development and opportunities.
Second, a national remediation program must address the regulatory and legal issues, not just the engineering challenges accompanying remediation. In most complex problems, science and engineering often turn out to be the easy part, while the cultural norms, regulatory framework, and public policy implications necessary for acceptance and implementation prove to be much more difficult. When you add in the international nature of space, these “non-technical” aspects are on the critical path for success and must be an inherent part of the program, not an afterthought.
Finally, a successful U.S. remediation program must create a sustained market beyond just government spending. This is likely the most difficult element to achieve and the most important. One-off government contracts and prize competitions are unlikely to meet this goal by themselves, particularly when faced with a large technological leap, non-technical regulatory obstacles, and a lack of a well-established market for customers. The recent history of space prizes such as the Ansari X-Prize and the Google Lunar X-Prize demonstrate this. While useful for generating public interest and advancing technologies, they do not have a good track record for yielding a sustainable, long-lasting commercial industry.
So, what is the pathway for the United States to establish a remediation program that hits all of these criteria? The best way to approach this is to model such a program on another successful space program — NASA’s Commercial Cargo and Crew transportation capabilities for low Earth orbit. This was done through a set of programs developed and run by NASA over the last two decades that included public-private sharing of the R&D costs, competitions to select multiple winners that met government capability thresholds while also being commercially viable, and the promise of government service contracts at the end. As a result, the United States now has a commercial capability to deliver cargo and crew to low Earth orbit for far less than it would have cost to develop a traditional government capability. Moreover, other governmental and private sector actors are now leveraging those same commercial capabilities, which could create a robust market that leads to further innovation and reduced costs.
The broader concept at work is known as advance market commitment (AMC) concept and was most recently used to pioneer the extremely successful mRNA vaccine development to combat COVID-19. Under the AMC model, the government, donors, or other entities promise to buy or subsidize a certain number of products at a price premium that gives a market incentive for companies to develop those products. The products can then be purchased by other government or private sector actors at market price.
This same approach should be adapted to develop a diverse set of commercial capabilities for orbital debris remediation. The program should be aimed at developing a set of capabilities for removing both large and small orbital debris as well as just-in-time collision avoidance that can prevent collisions without actually removing the debris and future technologies to reuse or recycle derelict space objects. It should also include commitments from the U.S. federal government to purchase the removal or remediation of a set number of debris objects a year and should be led by a civil agency, such as NASA or the Department of Commerce. The latter condition is crucial to help offset the international perceptions of such dual-use capabilities being developed by a warfighting military service such as the U.S. Space Force.
Ideally, the program would lead to the development of a robust set of commercial remediation capabilities from multiple companies that all governments can then leverage to reduce the near and long-term threat posed by orbital debris. Towards this end, the program should include remediation demonstrations involving both different countries and objects, such as a U.S. company removing a non-U.S. space object or vice versa. Doing so would help solidify several legal and policy grey areas currently acting as obstacles to a robust orbital debris remediation market.
Finally, the program needs to include funding for research on risk, cost-benefit analyses, and the economics of orbital debris to support future policy decisions. This research is needed to develop better tools to assess both the risk and costs posed by orbital debris to future uses of space, including commercial development and investment, which ultimately provides certainty to industry that their technology and financial investments will bear fruit.
The vision of space activities and capabilities to help address challenges on Earth and push humanity forward is clear but is only possible if we start managing the space environment today. The United States needs to live up to its role as the international leader in space by increasing its efforts for space environment management that includes a major investment in remediation. Doing so will go a long way to help ensure that the vision for a safe, sustainable, and stable space environment becomes reality.
Brian Weeden is the Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation and has more than two decades of experience in space operations and policy. He also serves as the Executive Director for the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), an industry group that includes several companies developing remediation capabilities. His spouse is employed by Astroscale, a CONFERS member company.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.