Overcoming non-technical challenges to cleaning up orbital debris
Economic aspects affecting remediation
Although we are poised for massive growth in commercial LEO operations, almost all current users in LEO are public entities providing social benefits (Weeden 2013 & 2012). Publically provided societal benefits, such as national security, science, climate and weather monitoring, disaster response, natural resource management, and space exploration, are not particularly responsive to prices and markets. Total private benefits from LEO only amount to $3 billion (Weeden 2013 & 2012). Complicating the picture, governments, especially their military agencies, are not yet open to mutually agreed-upon regulation of the LEO commons. The challenge therefore is to incentivize debris cleanup in LEO even while the majority of currently operating satellites in that orbital band are government-owned and providing social benefits.
Commercial satellite companies providing communication services for television, telephone, radio, and Internet tend to operate in GEO. This will soon change, however, as commercial entities are making plans for services to be supplied from LEO as well (Davis 2015). Therefore, an economic incentive already exists to clean up debris in GEO, and there will soon be one in LEO. However, the technical challenges to carry out remediation at any altitude are daunting because of varying trajectories, tumbling debris, lack of adequate tracking of both small and large debris, and fueling systems and electronics emplaced without thought to later repair, replacement, or resupply.
Developing and utilizing technology and international systems for orbital debris cleanup is bound to be expensive. If the past is any indication, public and private space entities will eventually pass on these costs, through either through taxes or higher service fees, to the consumers of satellite services. However, the consumers of commercial and government-provided satellite services need to understand that they are already in a “pay now or pay more later” situation. If they wait until there are more catastrophic orbital collisions, these consumers will suffer disruption of satellite services, and their bills for cleanup will be much higher than if cleanup proceeds proactively (McKnight 2012). For this reason, our proposed funding mechanisms below entail proactively bringing in minimal funds, either directly or indirectly, from end-consumers of satellite services before cleanup costs rise further.
Funding for debris cleanup
To fund remediation in three separate debris target areas, we recommend that funding come from the following three sources and systems:
The STM Coordination Office described above, working closely with the FAA and Department of Commerce, and in consultation with international entities such as the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) and Space Data Association, would assess parking fees based on a calculation of the increased relative debris-creation threat that each new launch represents, and scaled to modestly underestimate the resulting costs. That calculation in turn would be based on an estimate of the mass density of the orbit into which the new spacecraft is being launched, with higher fees being assessed on companies launching to the most densely crowded orbits. Space companies will therefore likely try to avoid launching into the most crowded orbits, and this will help to hold down the threat.
Concerning funds gathered from end-users of commercial satellite services, we suggest that the charge appearing on the consumer’s bill be specifically identified as an “Orbital Debris Mitigation and Remediation Fee.” A fee, so imposed, will have two very beneficial effects: it would raise over $80 million a year (The Tauri Group 2015), and it will instantly make consumers aware that there is a need for orbital debris remediation in the orbital band from which they are receiving satellite services. Consumers will also realize that they are playing an important part in maintaining satellite services to them.
What would be the most effective use of funds gathered under the above three systems? We recommend that the STM Coordination Office fund commercial entities through a tri-partite reward system using space agreements within a public-private COTS-like service acquisition strategy.
Under this reward system, funds would be gathered for debris remediation in three different situations: government-caused debris, commercially-caused debris, and debris where the national connection is unclear. The STM Coordination Office, working closely with the FAA, would award the reward money under COTS-type agreements to private companies only when companies achieve pre-negotiated pay-on-performance milestones, the last milestone being successful debris remediation. Insurance companies, paying for deorbiting in lieu of satellite company action, would also pay for remediation through a similar acquisition strategy. In this way, no entity need pay for expensive development projects, or for failures, but only for results.
With sufficiently high rewards, private entities would be enticed to compete for space agreements by creatively using various technologies to remediate both large and small debris. Moreover, private companies attempting remediation would necessarily have to collaborate, perhaps via subcontracts, with SSA entities in order to carry out successful remediation. Thus, SSA entities, in particular commercial ones, will be able to evolve their technologies based on involvement in actual remediation efforts instead of theoretical ones.
Looking toward the future: establishing salvage rights in space
Besides the Article VI requirement for “continuing supervision,” Article VIll of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) calls on the launching state to retain “jurisdiction and control” over any object it launches, even if that object, or even pieces of that object, cease to function. Removing a debris object or even its fragments therefore requires the consent of the nation on whose registry it was launched (Listner 2012). However, as seen above, determining that nation can be a daunting task for small fragments in popular orbits.
Complicating this picture is the fact that Article VI and VIII of the OST pertain to “Launching States,” who are not necessarily the owners of launched spacecraft. After all, the “Launching State(s)” for a rocket and its payload include the country owning the satellite at the time of launch, the country owning the rocket at that time, and the country from which the rocket was launched. Moreover, selling and re-registering an object does not transfer Launching State liabilities to the new owner or registrant. Yet, no matter the owner, Articles VI and VIII place full responsibility for supervision, jurisdiction, and control of space objects (apparently including fragments) on the Launching State(s). How, then, can this responsibility and its concurrent liability be transferred to a company attempting to remove or otherwise remediate orbital debris?
Under the long tradition of Maritime Salvage Law dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, a person who voluntarily preserves at sea any vessel, cargo, freight, or other recognized salvage from danger has traditionally been able to collect a reward (i.e. reward) proportionate to the value of the object salvaged. Maritime nations have most recently codified such custom and law in the International Convention on Salvage 1989. The Convention even considers protection of the environment as part of salvage, awarding a salvor who, for example, prevents oil pollution special compensation termed liability salvage instead of property salvage (“Law of Salvage” 2015).
Unfortunately, there is no space equivalent to the ancient maritime Law of Salvage, which gives a private party the right to salvage an abandoned vessel after peril or loss at sea, no matter the owner or country of vessel registration. Nor is there a space equivalent of the 1972 London Dumping Convention, which prohibits the disposal at sea of vessels, aircraft, platforms, and other debris. An International Orbital Debris Convention, however, could promulgate similar rules analogous to some in maritime law for the removal, reuse, recycling, or rehabilitation of orbiting objects by salvors, who would collect rewards through the reward system described above.
Such salvage rules could even address removing orbiting shrapnel clusters from the orbital environment by compensating salvors with liability salvage. Key to making such rules work, however, would be the formulation of legal mechanisms for voluntary and involuntary loss of ownership of and responsibility for the objects to be salvaged. There would also have to be special salvage exemptions or other provisions for sensitive military satellites. Yet a motivated space community, by means of an International Orbital Debris Convention, could enlist space-appropriate provisions from these maritime legal systems into an international legal codification to deal with orbital debris, while resolving the legal uncertainties surrounding Articles VI and VIII of the OST. Is there justification for another international convention in the OST?
Article IX of the OST, among other things, calls on nations to avoid “harmful interference with the activities of other State Parties in the…use of outer space” and to “undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment.” Clearly, orbital debris is interfering now with the space activities of State Parties to the OST. We therefore recommend that spacefaring countries, along with public and private space-related entities within their borders, organize and participate cooperatively in an International Orbital Debris Convention, in compliance with OST Article IX, to clarify legal responsibility and ownership issues for cleanup of debris objects.
In summary, we recommend:
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Carroll, Joseph; speaking at the 2014 NewSpace Conference Orbital Debris Panel Panel on 22 July 2014.
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Liou, Jer-Chyi speaking at the 2014 NewSpace Conference Orbital Debris Panel on July 26.
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