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Current Affairs

Space junk problem

Date: 27 May 2020 Tags: Space

Issue

Researchers say that the most effective way to solve the space junk problem is not to capture debris or deorbit old satellites: it's an international agreement to charge operators "orbital-use fees" for every satellite put into orbit.

 

Background

Space is getting crowded. Aging satellites and space debris crowd low-Earth orbit, and launching new satellites adds to the collision risk.

 

Details

  • Orbital use fees would also increase the long-run value of the space industry. By reducing future satellite and debris collision risk, an annual fee rising to about $235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040.

  • Orbital-use fees could be straight-up fees or tradeable permits, and they could also be orbit-specific, since satellites in different orbits produce varying collision risks.

  • Currently, an estimated 20,000 objects, including satellites and space debris, are crowding low-Earth orbit. Each operator launches more and more satellites until their private collision risk equals the value of the orbiting satellite.

  • Technological fixes include removing space debris from orbit with nets, harpoons, or lasers. De-orbiting a satellite at the end of its life is a managerial fix.

  • Removing space debris might motivate operators to launch more satellites, further crowding low-Earth orbit, increasing collision risk, and raising costs.

  • With orbital-use fees, the long-run value of the satellite industry would increase from around $600 billion under the business-as-usual scenario to around $3 trillion, researchers found. The increase in value comes from reducing collisions and collision-related costs, such as launching replacement satellites.

 

Space junk

Space junk or debris is a term for defunct human-made objects in space, principally in Earth orbit, which no longer serve a useful function. This can include non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.