Panel: Orbital debris problem is a lot like trying to fix climate change

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NASA's Bhavya Lal: 'Whatever we do, it cannot be just a government effort, it has to be government and industry together'

BOSTON — A study just completed by NASA looked at what new roles the space agency — and the U.S. government more broadly — should play in mitigating the growth of orbital debris and promoting space sustainability.

“And it is absolutely a complicated issue,” Bhavya Lal, senior advisor for budget and finance at NASA, said Sept. 28.

Speaking on a panel at the Space Sector Market Conference in Cambridge, Mass., Lal compared the debris challenge to the debate over how to address climate change. 

“There’s international dimensions, regulatory dimensions, commercial dimensions,” she said. 

Some of the takeaways from the study have been heard before. “We need to generate less debris, which means not doing ASAT [anti-satellite] tests in space, not have satellites that have no propulsion,” Lal said. “The other piece is we need to really understand where things are so we can maneuver around them.”

‘There are lessons we can learn from other domains,” Lal said. “The climate challenge is almost identical.” And it’s clear that the government alone cannot ensure a sustainable space environment, she added.

When it comes to climate change, “We want to put out fewer greenhouse gases, we want to remove the greenhouse gases … there’s discussions about carbon tax and trade schemes, a host of solutions that are being examined.”

A similar reasoning may apply to space, Lal said. “Whatever we do, it cannot be just a government effort, it has to be government and industry together. It has to be an international effort. It doesn’t matter what the United States does if two thirds of the debris is being generated by other countries. And I’m hoping in the coming months and years NASA will would be taking a bigger role in this area.”

Concerns are rising about congested orbits amid a huge expansion in the number of satellites being launched into orbit to provide services such as communications, navigation and Earth observation.

Sita Sonty, partner and associate director at the Boston Consulting Group, said at the conference that the issue of orbital debris is gaining the attention of industry investors and that many believe the private sector has to help finance solutions to the problem. 

“I think there is some questions on what do we remove first? Do we remove the very large bodies? Do we remove something else? And those are discussions to have in the community,” she said.

Investors are ready to fund businesses that could perform debris removal as a service, for example, “but they need to know that there is a strategic framework for governance … That governance structure has to be honored and it has to have an actual regulatory system.” 

If the industry sees a “drive towards the establishment of an international framework,” said Sonty, “then the investors will see some stability and some predictability in this segment of the market so they’ll be willing to place a bet there.”