Today’s digital infrastructure is being built in low Earth orbit. Satellite constellations from companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat, AST Space Mobile and many others are rapidly deploying to provide everything from internet to cell service to quantum encryption to meteorologic and economic data. These satellites are just the beginning as research, manufacturing, tourism, and mining will continue to grow the off-world economy.
The rapid development of these constellations is very exciting, but growth almost always brings undesired byproducts. When it comes to expanding in-orbit activities, the encroaching side effect is troublesome space debris.
Maintaining our orbits is essential to the projected trillion-dollar space economy and to the futures of a seemingly endless stream of billion-dollar space SPACs. Technologies that support the removal of space debris are a key part of the future space economy, and they’re good business.
The threat of space debris
As a space community, we have long harbored concerns about space debris. The concentration of satellites in valuable orbits has put these valuable on-orbit assets at risk of destructive collisions. Thanks to the relatively large expanse of near-earth orbits and some good luck we have had relatively few collisions so far. But this is about to change.
The number of satellites orbiting earth is expected to at least quintuple over the course of the 2020s. That means more dead satellites in orbit, more bodies to intercept, and more collisions. While the last major satellite collision was over a decade ago, the next one is much less than a decade away. And a one-time collision is the best-case scenario.
What’s worse is the dreaded fear that one collision could lead to another; causing an unstoppable chain reaction known as the Kessler Syndrome. If this were to occur, it would render nearby orbits entirely unusable.
A business case around constellation management
With all of these satellites going up, what can we do? A first substantial step is to ensure satellites leave valuable orbits once they’re done operating.
In low Earth orbit there are two primary options for satellite removal: Move the satellite up to a graveyard orbit with an altitude over 2000km or down to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. The latter is more fuel-efficient for most satellites, and more commonly used.
One solution is using a space tug to assist satellites. This is what we are developing at Starfish Space. Other companies such as Astroscale and ClearSpace are pursuing space tugs for debris removal too. A space tug is a transportation spacecraft that connects to a dead or dying satellite and helps it move from one orbit to another, almost like a taxi ride.
But many satellites can enter a disposal orbit simply by using their onboard propellant. De-orbiting a satellite with its own propulsion is always more efficient than using an independent space tug.
The value of a space tug instead revolves around being a supplemental disposal method for an entire constellation. It turns out that using an independent space tug for disposal maximizes the value of an entire satellite constellation. Having a guaranteed back-up disposal method allows constellations to operate through more risk than they could otherwise tolerate.
Here’s an example. Take a constellation with 100 satellites. Suppose the satellites have a 100% chance of surviving to five years, but degradation means only 90% will last seven years. Suppose also that each satellite is generating $1 million in value per year.
As a baseline scenario, all of the satellites would de-orbit after five years. We’ll call this scenario A.
Now, add a space tug to the mix. Suppose a space tug can de-orbit these satellites for $5 million per satellite. In this scenario, the constellation satellites could operate for seven years and use a space tug to dispose of the 10% that don’t last to dispose on their own. We’ll call this scenario B.
Now let’s compare the two scenarios. In scenario A, no added value is possible. All satellites must be decommissioned and removed before they run out of fuel.
In scenario B, although it costs $50 million to use the space tugs, it also adds $180 million in value from extended satellite operations. Overall, using a supplementary disposal service is a $130 million windfall for the constellation.
Scenarios such as this show that space debris removal is more than a nice environmental mission. It’s good business that can provide direct value to commercial satellite customers.
The incentives for clearing debris
Looming incentives will also clear the path for debris removal as a business.
Historically there have not been strong incentives to encourage the de-orbit of satellites. While an end-of-life disposal plan is necessary as part of constellation licensing, the plans are not always closely followed. This isn’t through ill-intention on the part of satellite operators; they just haven’t been properly incentivized to dispose.
With the sheer number of satellites being launched this decade though, we have to get more rigorous with our space debris approach. Part of that rigor is having incentives so that operators will spend the resources it’s worth to dispose of satellites.
There are three primary ways incentives might emerge, not surprisingly, in the next few years.
1 – Regulation
National or international policy can require end-of-life disposal. The same policies could add stricter consequences for non-compliance. This, however, requires a delicate balance for two reasons. First, it’s unclear which governing body has the authority and capability to create a universal policy. Second, overly harsh requirements and consequences could do as much harm to orbital innovation as space debris. Still, ideas like Aerospace Corporation’s de-orbit credit trading scheme may allow the market to determine an appropriate balance on regulation.
2 – Liability insurance
Already today satellite operators are theoretically responsible for damage caused by satellites they launch. The United Nations’ “Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects” established that nations are liable for damages caused by satellites launched from their soil.
In the U.S., the first $500 million of that liability is passed directly to satellite operators. Insurance is sold to cover the potential damage a satellite could cause as debris. The cost of that insurance is only continuing to go up, and eventually it will be more affordable to de-orbit than pay for insurance indefinitely.
3 – For their own orbits
Space debris is often considered a tragedy of the commons, where the pain is spread across too many parties for anyone to pay to clean it up. For many mega-constellations though, their debris primarily threatens their own satellites. As large satellite constellations are deployed, they become incentivized to protect their own infrastructure and ensure the disposal of their own satellites.
It will be interesting to see which incentives emerge to encourage the disposal of satellites over the next few years. It’s possible each contributes. It’s also possible an incentive will emerge that we haven’t recognized yet.
No matter the path, satellite disposal incentives will grow over the next few years. It’s key to maintaining our scarce orbital resources as we build our digital infrastructure in orbit. For us at Starfish Space and for companies throughout the developing off-world economy, especially satellite constellations, it’s just good business.
Austin Link is co-founder of Kent, Washington-based Starfish Space, the startup planning a constellation of Otter spacecraft for in-orbit services.