Could orbital fees force satellite operators to deal with space junk?

Could orbital fees force satellite operators to deal with space junk?
Thousands of pieces of space debris pose a very real threat to satellites and spacecraft in low-Earth orbit
Thousands of pieces of space debris pose a very real threat to satellites and spacecraft in low-Earth orbit
View 1 Image
Thousands of pieces of space debris pose a very real threat to satellites and spacecraft in low-Earth orbit
Thousands of pieces of space debris pose a very real threat to satellites and spacecraft in low-Earth orbit

The buildup of space debris is a serious problem that won’t be going away anytime soon, with thousands of pieces of junk currently in orbit around the Earth. A team of researchers has put forward a novel way to keep things in check, making a case for charging satellite operators an “orbital-use fee” that would not only help reduce the risk of collisions, but possibly boost the overall value of the satellite industry.

The accumulation of busted-up spacecraft, rockets and satellites in orbit over the years has created a significant risk for those still in operation. These pieces of space trash whiz around the Earth at up 17,500 mph (28,100 km/h), posing a very real threat to satellites and spacecraft currently in low-Earth orbit. In fact, the crew aboard the International Space Station has been forced to take shelter numerous times over the years, when orbital space debris has come a little too close for comfort.

Scientists and engineers have proposed all kinds of solutions when it comes to cleaning up this giant mess. These include satellites equipped with harpoons to skewer debris, introducing space sustainability ratings that reward responsible behavior, a Space Fence to detect and track junk and nets that scoop it up for safe disposal.

But with projects such as SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation of satellites in the works, this region of space is only going to get more crowded, and clearly some big picture solutions are needed. The way the authors of this new study see it, creating the right incentives for operators, rather than trying to tackle the problem through engineering and intervention after the fact, would go a long way to ensuring more responsible use of space.

"This is an incentive problem more than an engineering problem,” says lead author Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College. “What's key is getting the incentives right.”

Rao and his colleagues from the University of Colorado Boulder developed a model that considers the expected lifetime value of a new satellite and the cost to industry via the extra risk of collisions it creates. As it stands, operators tend to continue launching satellites until their private collision risk equals the value of the satellite, but the team’s model explored how an orbital-use fee could create an incentive to ensure the spacecraft are properly managed and disposed of at the end of their lifetimes.

"That's not the same as a launch fee," Rao says, "Launch fees by themselves can't induce operators to deorbit their satellites when necessary, and it's not the launch but the orbiting satellite that causes the damage."

The orbital-use fee would function like a carbon tax or fisheries management fees, with all countries launching and operating satellites needing to participate and charge the same fee per unit of collision risk for the scheme to work. It could function as a one-off payment or tradable permits, with the fee calculated to correlate with the cost to the industry of another satellite entering orbit, which demands more resources to reduce the collision risk. The fee could also be determined by the orbit the operator wishes to use, with different orbits carrying different risks of collision.

"In our model, what matters is that satellite operators are paying the cost of the collision risk imposed on other operators," says Daniel Kaffine, professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author on the paper.

As part of their study, the researchers also projected how the introduction of an orbital-use fee would impact the value of the satellite industry as a whole. Due to the reduction in collisions and associated costs, like replacing damaged satellites, for example, the team estimates the value of the industry would increase from US$600 billion to around $3 trillion.

In line with this and the rising value of cleaner orbits, the fee would also increase. The team found the optimal rate of rise to be 14 percent per year, meaning the fee would equate to around $235,000 per satellite, per year, by 2040.

"In other sectors, addressing the Tragedy of the Commons has often been a game of catch-up with substantial social costs,” says co-author Matthew Burgess from the University of Colorado Boulder. “But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate.”

The research was published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder via EurekAlert

It's great that the study recognizes the Tragedy of the Commons. It's very sad that these authors didn't learn the lesson. They are trying to fix "communal property" with Communal Fees. The solution to the paradigmic problem is found in property rights. I don't minimize the difficulty of defining "property" in the realm of orbits, but we have smart people and big computers; work it!
You can't tax away a physical problem. Besides there is no over-reaching authority to impose such a tax and that's good thing overall. Eventually I see other options becoming effective like orbital salvage and recycling as well as planned automatic reentry upon end-of-life for each satellite like what Star-link units have. If satellites were more modular, they could be repaired in space and/or their parts could be reusable for other purposes - think LEGO technic. There are lots of options without trying to impose ineffective taxation. I don't see Russia, China, Iran and others paying the fees. It would just hamper American, European, Australian, Kiwi, and Japanese launchers. Besides, how often does taxed money actually end up being used for its intended purpose? No. Sorry. Not gonna work.