Op-ed | For active debris removal, today’s concern is tomorrow’s opportunity

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The population of orbiting satellites has increased steadily in recent years and will skyrocket in the future, thanks to small satellites and megaconstellations. In addition to the stable population of comparatively large satellites in geostationary orbit, some 890 small satellites (weighing 500 kilograms or less) were launched to low Earth orbit between 2007 and 2016. In the coming decade, I estimate, more than 6,000 new smallsats will be orbited.

There’s little doubt LEO orbits will become extremely congested, making operations more expensive, complex and dangerous.

Industry and academia, coordinated by the European Space Agency, are working on several innovative and effective solutions to manage the in-orbit debris population, through meeting such as the Clean Space Industrial Days that ESA held in October at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. Several active debris removal, or ADR, solutions have been presented from all European industrial prime contractors, with different spacecraft designs and mission concepts.

Nonetheless, the basic ADR mission concept essentially boils down to a few, clear steps: approach the debris; prospect and survey the uncooperative object; align the space tug’s orbit and velocity with it; deploy the robotic mating solution (i.e. nets, harpoons, robotic arms); and finally de-orbit or reposition the target.

These steps, which involve complex robotic structures, advanced control software and powerful spacecraft, are approaching technological maturity and are expected to be flight-ready before the end of the decade.

Missing links

ESA analysis conducted in early 2017 revealed that the dangerous tipping point in terms of number of space debris has already been reached. Even if all the world’s space actors fully comply with the UN’s Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, the quantity of debris is still projected to steadily increase.

However, despite the pressing need for intervention and technology approaching maturity, it has been difficult to gather wide public consensus and deploy a maiden ADR mission.

The main obstacles appear to be both financial and institutional. While the apparent absence of direct benefits for commercial space operators makes it tough for ADR initiatives to attract private funding, the lack a of a shared, legally binding definition of the very concept of “space debris” leads to additional confusion.

To provide a better understanding of the issues at stake and encourage institutions to move forward with ADR mission development, during the Clean Space Industrial Days my firm, Leoni Corporate Advisors (LCA), used an innovative approach to involve institutions, industry and academia, through an interactive “dynamo workshop” to build a shared vision of problems and related solutions.

Concerning the qualification of key stakeholders which should be involved in ADR missions, the panel largely agreed that —due to the nature of space activities — the broader set of stakeholders should be involved in developing, financing and deploying ADR missions. “Space belongs to everyone,” as one of the participants in ESA’s Clean Space event stressed.

This proactivity was, however, counterbalanced by shared concerns related to financial constraints, seen as the main blocking factor for ADR missions deployment. The poor understanding of the externalities related to debris is furtherly hindered by the hurdles brought by the “tragedy of the commons” which characterizes the issue.

In fact, none of the Clean Space panelists saw a profitable private investment model for ADR missions, although the forum did not seem to expect a full reliance on public funding. Public-private partnerships (or P3s, for short) and the development of incentive schemes, combined with amandatory ADR insurance, and/or a disposal levy system funding and governance model (akin to the Kyoto Protocol approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions ) were suggested as potential effective tools. “Everybody should hold the liability for these problems and everyone should pay for this just like we do for waste management,” a participant suggested. “We should tax new launches to raise the funds needed for this purpose… space agencies and governments can’t be there to clean the dirt of the past and the future.”

Looking at future scenarios, Clean Space participants clearly saw ADR missions as a stepping stone to opening a wide array of innovative new businesses: Among the views expressed: the LEO market is relatively large and can support ADR. Other applications such as on-orbit services, space mining and space logistics will require several different technologies, however in most of these cases the same technology basis could serve various purposes.

Unleashing space-to-space economy potential

It is ever more evident that the ADR issue must be addressed with priority, especially by public institutions, delivering guidance and support to the industry. Nonetheless, since ADR is not a business per se, the industry should proactively explore further business opportunities exploiting technology spillovers, fostering the expansion of a new space-to-space economy with new commercial services, such as on-orbit services, and a plethora of private operators in the market.


Paola Leoni is a Senior Partner and CEO at Leoni Corporate Advisors. She holds a degree in International Law with a specialization in International Monetary and Financial Law from the Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva.