Pay “buy road money” to solve the space “traffic jam”

Space is getting crowded. Low-Earth orbits are packed with aging satellites and space debris, which increases the risk of collisions with new satellites. And the new satellite collision adds space junk… Such a vicious circle. The most effective way to solve the problem of space junk is not to capture debris or drag old satellites off orbit, but to charge operators “orbital royalties,” according to a new study. This may be a bit like a carbon tax.

Computer-generated images of space debris Picture: NASA

Orbital royalties will also enhance the long-term value of the space industry. The annual cost of each satellite rose to $235,000, which would not only reduce the risk of collision, but also triple the value of the satellite industry by 2040, the researchers said in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Space is a common resource for humanity, but the company doesn’t take into account how much the cost to the space environment is when deciding whether to launch satellites. “We need a policy that allows satellite operators to directly calculate other costs that may occur into launch costs,” said Matthew Burgess, an economist at the American Institute for Environmental Sciences and author of the paper. “

Space is also “stuck in traffic.”

Scientists estimate that 20,000 objects, including satellites and space debris, are currently floating in near-Earth orbit. With the increasing number of commercial satellites, space will also face a “big traffic jam”.

In April 2019, Amazon.com Inc. proposed project Kuiper, which plans to put 3,236 satellites into low-Earth orbit, providing broadband network services in the area between 56 degrees north latitude and 56 degrees south latitude.

In May of the same year, the Falcon 9 rocket of Space Exploration Technologies of the United States sent the first 60 Starlink satellites into space, followed by 1,584 satellites deployed in low-Earth orbit 550 kilometers above Earth.

One Network also deployed about 650 Internet satellites in the first phase and launched six in February last year.

Studies have suggested that the influx of large satellites has overwhelmed orbits and increased the risk of collisions. Thesmall satellite should therefore be out of orbit as soon as it completes its mission.

It was out of concern for reducing space junk that Space Exploration Technologies had to reduce the 1,600 satellites originally scheduled to operate at an altitude of 1,150 kilometers above Earth to 1,584 and its orbital altitude to 550 kilometers. Because when satellites are running low on fuel or not functioning properly, it’s easier to clean up in lower orbits – where Earth’s atmospheric particles can hit the satellite faster, push it out of its original orbit and drag it to Earth, ending up in the atmosphere.

Even so, the researchers believe that as each operator launches more and more satellites, their risk of collision surging, eventually pushing up the value of orbiting satellites.

“Blow it up” or “drag away.”

Since 2000, international organizations such as the Space Junk Coordination Committee have developed guidelines for achieving space sustainability. For example, a satellite ends its life by inactivated, or it lowers its altitude to a low enough level to crash into the atmosphere.

Wen Xin, a professor at the School of Aerospace Science at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said in an interview with the China Science Daily that, generally according to international requirements, spacecraft life is over, to change orbit, and eventually fly into the South Pacific “space junkyard.”

However, the remains of the rocket or other larger satellite debris could end up as space junk due to technical problems. At present, there are a number of ways to deal with space junk, and even some people have suggested the establishment of a special combat team to carry out space “traffic control”.

Recently, Japan’s first “space combat team” was established at the base in Tokyo’s capital. Japan’s defense ministry says the main task of the space operations team is to monitor space junk, meteorites and unidentified satellites.

Taurus Stars, which will be launched in 2019, are testing off-orbit technology to reduce space junk. For low-orbit microsatellites within 700 km of near-Earth, the standard device of thin-film “off-orbit sail” can be carried out in orbit at the end of the satellite’s life, so as to achieve “passive deorbiting” by increasing aerodynamic damping.

Akhil Rao, an assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College in the United States, told The Chinese Science Daily that so far, the space junk solutions proposed have been mainly technical or managerial. Technical solutions include the use of nets or lasers to remove space debris from orbit. “Dragging a satellite out of orbit at the end of its life is a correction in management. He said.

But projects or management solutions like this will not solve the space debris problem because they won’t change operators’ motivations, Burgess said. For example, the removal of space debris could prompt operators to launch more satellites, which in turn could make low-Earth orbit more crowded, increase the risk of collisions and ultimately increase costs.

“It’s an incentive issue, not an engineering one. The key is to create the right incentives. Rao said.

“Ticket” put in space.

Rao, Burgess and colleagues have found that a better solution to the problem of space debris might be to charge orbital royalties, or a tax on orbiting satellites. “Unlike the launch fee, the launch fee itself does not enable the operator to de-orbit the satellite when necessary, and in fact it is not the launch act that causes the damage, but the orbiting satellite itself. Rao said.

The researchers compared orbital usage fees to conventional operations (i.e. going into space) and technology, such as removing space junk. They found that orbital usage fees could force operators to directly measure the value of life expectancy on their satellites, as well as the cost of putting another satellite into orbit and the cost of creating additional risks.

The researchers found that the long-term value of the satellite industry would increase from the usual $600 billion to $3 trillion, with the increase driven primarily by reducing the costs associated with collisions.

Orbital royalties can be direct or tradable permits, or they can be for specific orbits, as satellites in different orbits pose different collision risks. Most importantly, the cost of each satellite will be calculated based on the industry’s cost of putting another satellite into orbit, including current and future additional collision risks and expected costs for space debris production.

“In our model, it is important that satellite operators pay for the risk of collisions that other operators take. Daniel Kaffine, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder who was involved in the study, told reporters. Moreover, these costs will increase over time to cover the increasein value of cleaner tracks. The model shows that the optimal cost will grow at an annual rate of 14%, reaching about $235,000 per satellite by 2040.

But the researchers say that in order to achieve the goals, all satellite-launching countries need to be involved – about a 12 countries use their own launch vehicles to launch satellites and more than 30 countries use their own satellites. In practice, this is similar to the measures taken by countries in the area of carbon taxes and fisheries management.

“In other areas, solving commons tragedies is often a ‘catch-up game’ at great social cost. But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they are upgraded. Burgess said.