With Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos soaring into suborbital space, three U.S. flights to the International Space Station (ISS) in July, and SpaceX delivering 88 satellites to orbit in the last six weeks, space traffic is surging. And this is just the beginning of increased commercial and governmental activity in space.
August will see several more trips to the ISS and more launches of satellites. Additionally, the Biden administration signed an agreement with the European Space Agency to use more satellites to address climate change through earth science research. This increased space traffic serves a wide array of purposes and represents vast investments by the private space industry and government. But these investments are going to increasingly be jeopardized by the massive amount of space junk already circling Earth.
There’s plenty of room to fly up there, but, believe it or not, NASA estimates there are already 23,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters and over 500,000 pieces of smaller junk in orbit. This space junk, or orbital debris, travels at high speeds and even a small piece can cause serious damage or destruction if it hits a spacecraft or satellite.
The space debris includes thousands of dead and retired satellites, parts of spacecraft from decades of missions, items exploded in warfare testing, and more.
Dodging space junk is a regular requirement for spacecraft in orbit. The International Space Station had to maneuver 25 times between 1999 and 2018 to avoid collisions, and it had to dodge debris three times in 2020.
Monitoring this debris is going to be a major issue as private space travel and the space economy grow. In 2019, the global space economy amounted to about $366 billion. Of this, $271 billion was in the satellite industry and $123 billion was directly in satellite services. As the world increasingly becoming reliant on satellites U.S. and global satellite businesses bear the brunt of the failure to track and remove orbital debris.
As Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Science and Space, said recently, we need to be proactive on space debris “rather than learning by a terrible accident … but we don’t quite have the sense of urgency we need.”
Urgency means committing to better space traffic management, and tracking and removing orbital debris.
Orbital debris management is not well organized within the government. Right now, the Department of Defense (DOD) does most tracking of space debris for the U.S. out of the need to protect military satellites and national security interests. NASA has its own less advanced systems for tracking debris. However, orbital debris management is not just about tracking debris anymore. It is also about forming collision warning systems and safely managing traffic in space. To do this efficiently, we need a civil repository for all orbital debris components, something that many commercial space companies have already created on their own to stay aware of orbital debris and help protect their satellites in space.
Tracking debris may be a national security priority, but providing space traffic control is not really in the Defense Department’s mission.
We should be utilizing the private sector’s expertise and advancements in this area. For example, Astroscale has contracts with both the Japanese and European space agencies to develop orbital debris removal capability. And responsibility for developing collision warnings and space traffic management would be best suited for the Office of Space Commerce, an office with existing connections to the commercial space industry, NASA and DOD.
Partnering with the debris tracking and removal systems private companies are developing while freeing up DOD to focus on military awareness and NASA to focus on research and development would be the most efficient way forward.
If the government works with private industry through strategic public-private partnerships, the U.S. can best address the threats posed by orbital debris and create sustainable policies for safe space exploration.
A version of this column first appeared in The Hill.