On November 15, Russia conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test targeting its Soviet-era spy satellite Kosmos 1408. The test resulted in the complete fragmentation of the satellite, which produced over 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, signficantly increasing the risk of collision for other spacecraft and threatening human lives.
This event highlights the importance of keeping near-Earth orbits uncluttered from space debris. As the amount of space debris increases, so does the risk for collision, which could generate more debris, causing a feedback loop of collisions that could eventually threaten future space operations.
Right now, there are around 4,500 active satellites in space, with plans to launch up to 60,000 more in the next decade. While space might seem infinite, Earth orbits are not, and decades of space use have resulted in a crowded environment. This puts at risk the space-based services society relies on for navigation, weather forecasting, environment monitoring, communications and more.
Researchers at the EPFL International Risk Governance Center (IRGC) started a project earlier this year to address the problem of collision risk from space debris, which has resulted in the publication of a new policy brief, “Policy options to address collision risk from space debris.” This publication provides a range of policy options and broad recommendations to improve the assessment, evaluation and management of the risk.
Addressing existing and preventing new debris
One of the researchers’ main messages in the policy brief is that while we are still lacking a complete understanding of the problem, we have sufficient evidence that collision risk is a growing issue and that it is time to act.
“Incomplete assessment of collision risk should not be an excuse to delay action,” says Romain Buchs, author of the policy brief. “Governments should become more active, starting by requesting more comprehensive risk assessments and a more in-depth evaluation of possible response strategies, including their costs and benefits.”
There is no single way to address collision risk from space debris; rather, numerous options need to be pursued. These include mitigation, which aims to prevent the creation of new debris, and remediation, which aims to reduce the risk of collision involving existing debris.
“Policymakers should strive to provide economic incentives to reward and encourage private entities to develop and implement technology to manage the risk,” Buchs says.
Once cost-effective technologies to reduce collision risk are available, national regulatory authorities can mandate or incentivise their adoption. Researchers at IRGC suggest some key requirements for space missions that should be incorporated in regulations.
While mitigation has been at the core of policy efforts, remediation has received comparatively little attention. However, the debris-generating potential from large debris clusters must be addressed, and mature and cost-effective remediation technologies are needed.
According to the policy brief, several options should be pursued and tested simultaneously. This approach is beneficial, as it is not possible to know in advance which option should be prioritised, plus it is unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution.
Involving more stakeholders
Given the uncertainty surrounding collision risk and how the risk is perceived by different space actors, more collaborative work is needed. IRGC researchers suggest including a wider set of stakeholders that benefit from or conduct space-related activities in discussions.
“Understanding how stakeholders perceive this risk and what drives space actors’ behaviour will ultimately help create better response strategies and make progress at a global level,” says Buchs.
Many decision-makers are still not fully aware of the critical services on Earth that are dependent on increasingly vulnerable space infrastructure. It is therefore extremely important that scientists and space actors raise awareness regarding the current use of space, especially about the benefits and risks of space activities, to help policymakers make informed decisions.
“On the whole, we need a larger and more committed political involvement at both the national and international levels,” Buchs says. “This will be instrumental to progress.”