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Review: Confronting Space Debris


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Confronting Space Debris: Strategies and Warnings from Comparable Examples Including Deepwater Horizon
by Dave Baiocchi and William Welser IV
RAND Corporation, 2010
softcover, 156 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8330-5056-4
US$27.00

Few would argue that space debris—also known as orbital debris or space junk—is not a serious problem. The growing population of debris, exacerbated in recent years by China’s 2007 ASAT test and the 2009 collision of Iridium and Cosmos spacecraft, has raised the risk of damaging or disabling active spacecraft and creating additional debris. There’s far less concurrence, though, on how to solve this problem. There are non-binding guidelines on steps countries can take to limit the production of orbital debris, from “passivating” upper stages to moving decommissioned spacecraft into “graveyard” orbits. A year ago DARPA and NASA co-hosted a conference on taking the next step, actively removing orbital debris. A new book suggests, however, that it will be some time before we’re actively sweeping debris from orbit.

In Confronting Space Debris, a RAND Corporation monograph (a free PDF version of which is available on RAND’s web site), Dave Baiocchi and William Welser IV look to other fields to find analogies to the space debris problem: areas ranging from US border control and airline security to hazardous waste and oil spills to even email spam. They analyze the approaches taken by governments, businesses, and others to address these problems, including the diversity of the audiences affected by these problems and how much of an overlap there is between the groups creating the problems and those affected by them.

Moving to remediation, the book argues, may require a “catastrophic” event that lowers the community’s risk tolerance—which suggests the problem of orbital space debris may get worse before it gets better.

The authors apply a four-stage framework to addressing these problems: identification, establishment of behavioral norms, mitigation, and remediation. Moving from one step to the next, they argue, takes place when the number of incidents exceeds the community’s risk level. For orbital debris, the problem is at the mitigation stage: taking steps to reduce the growth in the population of debris. They argue that the problem is not severe enough now, though, to move to remediation, or actively removing debris, given the lack of government and private interest (particularly funding) for remediation efforts despite their increasing utilization of space. “[I]f debris were deemed to represent an unacceptable risk to current or future operations,” they write, “a remedy would already have been developed by the private sector.”

The authors, though, do provide some lessons for any future remediation efforts, using the saga of the Deepwater Horizon—the oil rig that was destroyed in the Gulf of Mexico in April, creating the largest oil spill in US history—as a case study. The biggest lesson, they argue, is that any remediation technologies need to be tested first in actual operating conditions, as many of the efforts tested on the Deepwater Horizon spill failed because they had not been previously used in deep ocean conditions. The event also demonstrated the need to have multiple approaches to solving the problem, as no single approach can work all the time.

For the time being, though, the focus on orbital debris appears oriented more towards mitigation instead of remediation, despite some efforts by DARPA to study remediation technologies under its “Catcher’s Mitt” program. For example, last week Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy, told a Stimson Center audience in Washington that the US government would make a decision soon on whether to support a proposed “Code of Conduct” for space activities published by the EU two years ago that, among other measures, calls for nations to take steps to avoid collisions and other activities that create debris. That proposed code, Rose said, “is very consistent with the key policies outlined in the president’s new space policy,” which also includes provisions calling for orbital debris mitigation. Moving to remediation, Confronting Space Debris argues, may require a “catastrophic” event that lowers the community’s risk tolerance, as has happened in other fields—which suggests the problem of orbital space debris may get worse before it gets better.


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