Artist's rendition of the European Space Agency's Aeolus spacecraft, which moved in September to avoid a potential collision with a SpaceX Starlink communications satellite. Credit: European Space Research and Technology Centre

WASHINGTON – Since the beginning of the year, space insurance underwriter Assure Space is no longer offering policies covering collision risk for satellites operating in low Earth orbit, Richard Parker, Assure Space managing director, said at the Satellite 2020 conference.

Assure Space continues to insure launches, satellites operating in geostationary orbit, satellites raising their orbit through low Earth orbit and missions to the international space station.

“But if someone comes to me and says, ‘I want one year on-orbit coverage for a small satellite in low Earth orbit,’ the answer is no,” Richard Parker said. “I can’t charge them today what I perceive the real risk to be.”

If a client still wants to buy a policy, Assure Space will write a policy that excludes collision coverage.

“I won’t pay in the event you have a collision in any circumstance,” Parker said. It would not matter whether the client’s satellite was involved in a collision or was hit by debris from a collision that occurred months ago.

“It’s not the best insurance policy to buy, I don’t expect to be selling many,” Parker said.

Insurers, satellite operators and debris experts warn that low Earth orbit is becoming more crowded, increasing the odds of objects colliding.

In January, NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite launched in 1983 came within meters of crashing into Gravity Gradient Stabilization Experiment-4, a U.S. Air Force satellite launched in 1967.

“One had an 18 meter boom,” Parker said. “The other one weighed a ton. If those two satellites had hit each other, it would have been front-page news.”

In September, the European Space Agency moved its Aeolus wind observation satellite to avoid a potential collision with a SpaceX Starlink communications satellite.

People talk about collision avoidance and debris mitigation, but “I don’t see any action happening,” Parker said. Eventually, collisions and the resulting debris fields will make “the entire insurance market pull out of low Earth orbit. I’ve just done it a year or two early,” he added.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...