Rendering of space debris and defunct launcher stages in the geostationary ring. Credit: European Space Agency

WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force generals made headlines recently calling for the development of commercial services to clean up orbital debris. These statements convey a sense of urgency about the risk of collisions in space but the government’s indecision about how to manage this problem is delaying private investments and efforts to develop space cleanup businesses, says an industry analyst.

In a white paper published Oct. 21 by the consulting firm Avascent, analyst Nick Bolger points to comments made last month by Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, the vice commander of the Space Force’s Space Operations Command, who said “there is a use case for industry to go after” space debris removal as a business opportunity.

From an industry perspective, however, the business case is not quite so clear, Bolger said. “Significant developments need to settle across industry in order to prove out this claim,” he said of Burt’s comments.

With 16,000 satellites expected to be launched from 2021 to 2025, there is wide consensus that space sustainability and safe spaceflight operations are at risk. But actions to address the problem are being “challenged by shifting priorities of domestic and international governing agencies,” Bolger argues.  

“Varying opinions of regulatory stakeholders on how to approach debris removal prevents the U.S. government from taking action per se,” he said. A major obstacle is uncertainty about what agencies should take the lead in specific areas. A case in point is the transition of space traffic management responsibilities from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department which has for years been bogged down in studies and analysis.

The Space Force says it wants to buy debris removal services, but if space traffic management moves to another agency it’s not clear who would make those buying decisions. 

“As far as a business case goes, I believe that investors may be wary of backing some of these nascent companies without a guarantee of future procurements by the government,” Bolger said. 

Another concern is the lack of standard metrics about collision hazards, he said. Agencies “self-regulate their space operations, often leveraging varying data sources and risk criteria to determine their need for collision avoidance maneuvers.”

There’s been a number of close calls and near-miss collisions in recent years, and yet “governing bodies have shown little indication of taking the lead on deploying space debris removal and remediating technologies in the near future,” Bolger noted. 

What could be done to incentivize industry

Space debris removal technologies such as space tugs and junk collectors are now in the early phases of testing and development, Bolger said, but these companies still don’t have a broad range of customers.

One way to incentivize commercial satellite operators to clean up debris is to change insurance requirements for satellites. The United States requires satellite operators to be insured for damages caused by third parties and for damage claims from the government. “Operators will seriously consider de-orbiting and cleanup services that allow them to avoid paying insurance over a longer time horizon,” said Bolger.

The World Economic Forum’s Space Sustainability Rating system currently scores operators based on de-orbit plans, collision maneuvers and data sharing. The rating system is used on a voluntary basis by operators. Bolger said a U.S. federal adoption of a space sustainability rating system would likely lead to self-regulation of space activities.

“The system would incentivize operators to incorporate debris remediating plans prior to entering orbit,” he said.

Disjointed regulatory efforts create uncertainty for the industry, Bolger added. For example, the Federal Communications Commission is holding off on updating requirements for collision avoidance maneuvers for all satellites after NASA recommended constellations larger than 25 spacecraft and flying above 420 kilometers be required to have propulsion systems. 

“This has forced the FCC to seek additional public commentary before issuing another report and order,” he said. 

And there is still disagreement among agencies on whether the long-standing “25-year rule” should be changed. That rule says satellite and any debris from its launch should not remain on orbit for more than 25 years after its mission ends. Some have called for that timeline to be reduced, particularly in heavily congested areas in low Earth orbit. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...