01 December 2014

Space debris, an environmental problem

Mathijs H writes:*

On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1 entered the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to circle earth. Since then national space agencies have placed 6,000 satellites in the LEO, which has turned into a commons in which one agency's debris threatens other agencies' satellites. This space debris problem is well-known, and different mitigation, coordination and remediation initiatives are underway.

The urgency of the problem is obvious in Johnson et al.'s study, where the "best case scenario" (a 200-year halt to launches) leads to a stabilization of debris until 2055, but an increase afterwards. The cause -- cascading effects -- results when one collusion generates more objects, and in doing so increases the risk of new collisions. That exponential growth rate means that total debris will rise above the rate of decay (due to atmospheric drag).

It is clear that action is necessary, and the biggest space agencies seem to feel responsible in doing so. Examples of these actions are the Clean Space Initiative of ESA, NASA's orbital debris program, and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). These actions, unfortunately, are not going to fix the problem. The first steps (mitigation and monitoring) need to be augmented with remediation, but it seems undecided who is going to do it. This existing coordination problem will not get easier when private companies increase space activities and the cost of this common pool resource problem.

Bottom Line: The space debris problem is urgent. Initiatives are taken, but not enough. Involvement of private companies will make action more complex to coordinate, and therefore the problem more difficult to solve.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.


  1. Diederik van den Burger01 December, 2014 21:56

    Dear Mathijs,

    First of all: nice presentation today :). I had really never thought about this problem at all, which is why I find it a really interesting topic.

    To comment on your post, you mention in the bottom line section that the involvement of private companies will make the problem more difficult to solve. However, I am not really confident about that statement.

    I think that the involvement of private companies might actually benefit this problem. If a market emerges for companies to compete for orbit cleaning contracts, we might see that new innovative ways are thought of to clean space.

    We know that the introduction of markets can decrease prices and increase innovation/technology, so why don't we let private companies tackle this problem?

  2. I agree with what Diederik has said and believe that we are now actually at an interesting point in time. The growing amount of private companies makes for an interesting space market. Cleaning contracts can be sold, as Diederik stated, and the privatization of 'space' can start.

    Furthermore I find it somewhat ironic that we, as humans, have managed to pollute not only our earth but are also well on our way to pollute our 'final frontier.'

  3. Diederik you make a fair point that the involvement of private companies would increase innovation, which could help solve the problem. But before these companies could be involved in solving the problem with for example cleaning contracts, as bart said, a lot has to change. At the moment space is in nobodies possession, so there is nobody who is going to pay for those contracts.

    At the moment space is a common pool product, with a tragedy of the commons as result.The whole group would benefit to clean space, but all individuals benefit even more if someone else cleans space. With this situation in mind, the concern I raised with the involvement of private companies is, that at the moment:
    - They are all potential space polluters, which would make the space pollution more expensive to solve
    - Tragedy of the commons problem tend to be harder to solve when there are more parties involved, caused by coordination problems.

    I do have to say however, that in my essay I recommend to solve this problem by privatizing space. With an auction and all. But you have to read my essay for the details.

    Thanks for the comments though! And I'm glad to see we have a shared interest!


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