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Can the Market Solve the Wicked Problem of Space Debris?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Ya Ni and Faith Victoria Ni
May 16, 2022

When Elon Musk and his all-civilian crew orbited Earth in September 2021, the world was amazed at how the free market plunged into space exploration, a previously government dominated arena. Apparently, Musk’s SpaceX is driven by the desire for the profitable market share of a booming space industry rather than pure curiosity, even though the company has not yet claimed a return on investment. According to Statista, the turnover in the global space economy was approximately US $446.9 billion, among which commercial space products and services accounts for almost 50 percent of the total in 2020. Whereas entrepreneurs like Musk are anticipating a return on their invested capital, could public policy analysts expect that market mechanisms will address the problem of space debris, a negative externality from space exploration?

Space debris, also called space junk, is composed of artificial materials that are orbiting Earth but are no longer functional. The size of such materials can range from something as small as a microscopic chip of paint to one as large as a discarded rocket stage. Much of the debris is within 1,200 miles of Earth’s surface in low Earth orbit, along with 3,372 satellites (as of 2021, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Orbital Debris Program Office), however, some debris can be found in geostationary orbit 22,236 miles above the equator. As of 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network has been tracking roughly 22,300 of these objects. A study presented at the European Conference on Space Debris states that the problem has been underestimated and the amount of orbital junk could, in a worst-case scenario, increase 50 times by 2100. If left unchecked, space junk could pose significant problems for future generations, rendering access to space increasingly difficult or perhaps even impossible. These objects pose a significant threat to operational satellites, spacecraft and space stations. Moreover, simply having so much debris in orbit creates the potential for the problem to become increasingly worse over time all on its own.

Uncontrolled de-orbits are not unheard of. In 2009, a dormant Russian military satellite slammed into a private U.S. communications satellite causing brief disruptions for satellite-phone users. Although a proportion of the space junk in low Earth orbit will gradually lose altitude and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, larger debris can occasionally impact Earth and have detrimental effects on the environment and human safety. While efforts are made to contain the fallout from launches within a specified area, it is extremely difficult to achieve completely. On April 29, 2021, a Long March 5 Brocket, carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module, was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province. A core segment of the rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and most of it burned up, after days of speculation by the country’s space agency over where the debris would hit.

Given the “public good” nature of space, it traditionally has been expected that government actions should be rendered to address the issue of space debris, primarily due to the fact that there are various important legal frameworks concerning outer space activities, such as the Liability Convention (1972), Moon Agreement (1979), Outer Space Treaty (1967), Rescue Agreement (1968) and Registration Convention (1975). Later international joint efforts include a set of debris-mitigation guidelines developed by the United States in the mid-1990s, a consensus set of guidelines adopted by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 2002, and the guidelines adopted by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. However, such legal frameworks do not impose any prohibition on the creation of space debris, nor do they obligate states and their space actors to remove debris created in orbit. Most mitigation measures are either voluntary or nonbinding, and have been adopted only partially by some states in their domestic framework on space law. Since no extreme catastrophic event has happened yet, in the absence of a concentrated political interest group, advocacy for cleaning up outer space has never obtained much public attention nor achieved mindful policy action.

Apparently, space debris is a wicked policy problem as the nature of the problem is hard to define: its domain can expand easily from a technical issue to a national security one. In 2007, China used a ground-based direct-ascent missile to remove its own aging weather satellite, the Fengyun-1C. This incident spawned roughly 3,400 pieces of debris that will orbit Earth for several decades before decaying as recorded by CelesTrak. China’s actions were broadly perceived by those who are heavily dependent on space assets, particularly the United States, as an anti-satellite test, a signal of the country’s expanding military space capabilities.

Just as Musk has helped keep Ukrainians online with shipments of Starlink satellite internet service, the private sector has the advantage of addressing sensitive political controversies without having direct government involvement. If space debris can be cleaned up by private industry, it can potentially avoid endless negotiations among nation-states as well as posing or provoking threats to national security.

The expansion of the commercial space industry is expected to create a profitable demand for cleaning space, not only for commercial satellites but also for commercial space navigation, such as tourism. Some far-seeing entrepreneurs already have been exploring this market niche. For example, Astroscale, a private Japanese company, was established in 2013 with the belief that they can clean up space debris more effectively than foot-dragging national space agencies. The company has launched a mini-satellite that carries panels to measure the number of strikes from debris of even less than 1 millimeter. Astroscale uses this data to compile the first detailed maps of debris density at various altitudes and locations, which they expect to sell to satellite operators and space agencies. In 2021, the company launched the world’s first commercial debris removal technology demonstration satellite. The era of private sector helping tackle this long-lasting public policy problem has begun.

Market-based interventions have long been used in attempts to solve numerous public problems, from waste collection to education and from healthcare to climate change. If the wicked problem of space debris can be solved by the free market in the challenge of plausible collective actions, it will mark another triumph of neoliberalism.


Author: Anna Ya Ni ([email protected]) is the Associate Dean and professor of public administration at the Jack H. Brown College of Business and Public Administration in California State University, San Bernardino.

Author: Faith Victoria Ni ([email protected]) is a student at Glenda Dawson High School in Pearland, Texas. She was selected to the MIT Woman Technology Program in 2022. Her career goal is to become an Artemis astronaut.

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