Industry Worries Government ‘Backsliding’ on Orbital Debris

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Despite growing concern about the threat posed by orbital debris, and language in U.S. national space policy directing government agencies to study debris cleanup technologies, many in the space community worry that the government is not doing enough to implement that policy.

Some speakers at a workshop held here by the University of Maryland’s Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER) expressed concern that the government was “backsliding” in its commitment to reducing the growth of orbital debris, let alone tackling the more complex issues of removing orbital debris.

The 2010 National Space Policy directed government agencies to follow orbital debris mitigation guidelines designed to minimize the creation of new debris. The policy also, for the first time, directed NASA and the U.S. Defense Department to study ways to remove existing debris, a concept known as remediation.

“Everybody who’s looked at the problem comes to the same conclusion: If we don’t start removing five to 10 objects per year for the next 100 years, we’ll have an unstable environment,” Donald Kessler, a retired NASA scientist who was one of the pioneers in orbital debris research, said in a keynote talk at the workshop Nov. 18.

NASA and Defense Department officials at the workshop said that despite the policy direction, they have only started to address orbital debris remediation issues. “This past year, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about remediation,” Thomas Cremins, senior adviser for policy and strategy implementation at NASA, said during a panel session Nov. 18.

However, Cremins added that NASA has decided to focus on early stage technologies that may eventually be useful for debris remediation as well as other applications, including its Asteroid Redirect Mission program, rather than as a separate initiative. “We do not have an active debris remediation program,” he said.

Josef Koller, space policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said an increasing number of companies have discussed orbital debris remediation approaches with his office. While those discussions have yet to lead to formal policies and plans, he said the United States should take a leadership role in international discussions about debris cleanup.

“I think a lot of countries are looking to us for leadership: How do we solve not only the technical questions but also the legal questions?” he said.

The Defense Department and other agencies have instead focused their attention on debris mitigation efforts. Koller said his office was working to limit the exemptions to current debris guidelines that it grants to its missions. “The goal really is to start drawing down those granted exemptions and, by 2018, have a zero environment for granted exemptions,” he said.

Other agencies also implement debris mitigation guidelines, either for their own satellites or those over which they have regulatory oversight. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for example, requires companies whose satellites it licenses to follow those guidelines.

“The FCC, at one time, was very aggressive in its enforcement” of the orbital debris guidelines, James Dunstan, founder of Mobius Legal Group, said in a Nov. 19 keynote at the CODER workshop. He cited, as one example, the FCC’s rejecting a license application because it lacked sufficient detail in its orbital debris mitigation plan.

Dunstan said he believed that this strong enforcement was linked to the 2007 test of a Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon and the 2009 collision of an Iridium and Russian Cosmos satellite; both incidents created significant debris. That enforcement, he argued, has lagged as those incidents faded into the past.

“I would contend that there has been significant backsliding since 2010, since the fear of Iridium/Cosmos and the Chinese ASAT have gone away,” he said. He noted the FCC recently allowed Iridium to amend its orbital debris plan to allow several satellites that had exhausted their fuel to naturally deorbit over 25 years, rather than actively deorbit over several months.

The workshop discussed a number of technical concepts for orbital debris cleanup, from tugs that would move defunct satellites to a laser that nudges smaller pieces of debris into lower orbits. Even engineers there, though, acknowledged that orbital debris cleanup was not solely a technical problem.

“It’s going to be a little hard for some of us to stand back and let lawyers and policy people get involved and start telling us how to solve the problem,” said Eric Sundberg, principal scientist at the Aerospace Corp., in a Nov. 19 panel presentation on remediation technologies.