Generals from the United States Space Force recently made headlines by urging the creation of commercial services to clear up orbital debris. These words portray a sense of concern about the dangers of space collisions. Still, an industry analyst claims that the government’s uncertainty over how to deal with the problem is slowing private investment and efforts to build space cleanup enterprises.
Analyst Nick Bolger notes to comments made recently by Major General DeAnna Burt, who works as the vice commander in charge of Space Force’s Space Operations Command, who stated “there is a use scenario for the industry to go after” space debris cleaning as a business opportunity in a white paper that was published on October 21 by the consulting company Avascent.
The business case, however, is not as evident from an industry standpoint, according to Bolger. “In an attempt to validate out this allegation, significant developments across the industry must settle,” he said of Burt’s remarks.
There is widespread agreement that space sustainability, as well as safe spaceflight operations, are in jeopardy, with 16,000 satellites planned to be launched between 2021 and 2025. However, Bolger claims that measures to fix the issue are being hampered by shifting objectives of domestic and global governing entities.
“The US government is prevented from taking action by varying perspectives of regulatory players on how to conduct debris clearance,” he said. Uncertainty over which agencies should lead in various sectors is a key roadblock. One example is the transfer of responsibility for space traffic management from Defense Department (DoD) to the Commerce Department, which has been bogged down in research and analysis for years.
The Space Force states it intends to buy debris cleanup services, but it’s unclear who will make those purchases if space traffic control is transferred to another agency. “In terms of a business case,” Bolger added, “I anticipate that investors may be reluctant of funding some of these nascent enterprises unless there is a promise of future government procurements.”
He also expressed concern about the lack of defined collision danger metrics. “Agencies self-regulate all their space operations, relying on a variety of data sources and risk assessments to evaluate the requirement for collision avoidance measures.” In recent years, there have been several close calls as well as near-miss collisions, but “governing bodies have shown no indication of leading the way on deploying space debris collection and remediation technologies in the near future,” according to Bolger.
According to Bolger, space debris removal technology like space tugs and trash collectors are still in the early stages of research and development. Still, these companies don’t yet have a large customer base.
Changing the insurance criteria for satellites is one method to encourage commercial satellite providers to clean up debris. Satellite operators must be insured in the United States for losses caused by third parties as well as potential damages from the government. “Operators will seriously investigate de-orbiting as well as cleanup services which allow them to evade paying insurance for a longer period,” Bolger said.