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Tackle space debris with ‘orbital-use’ fees, economists advise

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Economists based at the University of Colorado-Boulder have suggested that the most effective way to solve the issue of building space debris in orbit around Earth is to charge operators a fee for every satellite put into orbit.

According to the US Space Surveillance Network, approximately 20,000 large objects are crowding low-Earth orbit, including defunct satellites and abandoned launch vehicles. However, the number of smaller pieces of space debris is thought to number more than 100 million. Even small pieces of space debris can pose a threat to objects in orbit due to their colossal orbital speeds and several spacecraft have been damaged or destroyed by space debris already.

Economists at the University of Colorado-Boulder have suggested that the most effective way to solve the problem is to enforce an international agreement to charge operators “orbital-use fees” for every satellite put into orbit.

They suggested that an annual fee rising 14 per cent per year to approximately $235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040 by reducing future satellite and debris collision risk. This would reduce collision-related costs, such as launching replacement satellites after space debris-related damage.

“Space is a common resource, but companies aren’t accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch,” said Matthew Burgess, co-author of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper explaining the proposals. “We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators.”

Discussion around space debris is largely centred around technological solutions such as by removing large pieces of existing space debris from orbit using nets, harpoons, or lasers, or managerial solutions such as designing satellites to remove themselves from low-earth orbit at the end of their lifetimes.

The researchers argue that technological or managerial solutions like these will not solve the debris problem as they do not change the incentives for operators. For instance, organisations like the European Space Agency (ESA) removing space debris could even motivate operators to launch more satellites and cause further crowding.

An orbital-use fee would be different from a launch fee, the researchers said. Lead author Professor Akhil Rao explained: “Launch fees by themselves can’t induce operators to deorbit their satellites when necessary and it’s not the launch but the orbiting satellite that causes the damage.”

These fees could be orbit-specific, with greater charges for satellites in particularly crowded orbits with high collision risk. The fee would need to reflect the cost to the industry of putting another satellite in orbit, including cost of collision risk and space debris production. Orbital-use fees would require tight collaboration between all countries from which satellites are being launched.

However, Professor Christopher Newman, a space law expert at Northumbria University, told Reuters that such a plan could be difficult to put into practice, particularly as it could be interpreted as a restriction on the free use of space enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty 1967.

“A scheme like this could easily get bogged down in a quagmire of detail,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UK government has announced up to £1m in funding for organisations proposing innovative and cost-effective solutions to minimise space debris damage by monitoring objects in low-Earth orbit or applying AI to make better use of existing orbital data. Organisations will be able to bid for a maximum grant of £250,000.

“From AI to advanced tracing systems, the UK space industry is leading the way in developing ground-breaking solutions to worldwide problems,” said Amanda Solloway, the science minister. “Today’s funding will enable businesses to develop cutting-edge innovations to combat the growing amount of space debris orbiting the Earth – helping protect vital services like communications, weather forecasting, and satellite navigation.”

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