On the second of May I had the pleasure of meeting Special Council Duncan Blake (from the International Aerospace Law & Policy Group), and five of his students – the ANGELS – from the University of Adelaide, to have a discussion about Exodus Space Systems and the legal considerations we expect to face in the future. It was a really productive conversation, where the aim was to help them understand what a start-up founder like myself might want to see in the website they are building, and it was also one I was especially glad to have it at this stage in our company’s development, as I was able to run a couple of our hypotheses by the group and talk about the legal implications.
A significant feature of any future space debris removal industry will be how various actors respond to the issues raised by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. A good summary of the treaty as it relates to space debris can be found here, but I think we can all agree that the treaty requires space-faring countries – as well as any commercial space entities located within the jurisdiction of those countries – to avoid “harmful contamination” of the space environment. Because harmful contamination in the form of space debris already exists, processes like active debris removal (ADR) are likely to become a key feature of the emerging space industry, in some way, shape or form.
The question is: who is going to pay for it?
This is where our hypotheses come in. The first hypothesis is that we think there are basically two different categories of ADR services that satellite customers will want to see from space debris removal companies such as ourselves, which we’re calling 1) Ad Hoc and 2) General services.
Ad Hoc services are those services to be performed in cases of specific need, as when a satellite is no longer controllable and needs to be de-orbited, or worse, when a collision has occurred and the resulting debris poses an imminent threat to other assets in space. We think these will form an important part of the early stages of the space debris removal industry, and will continue as long as there are large multi-ton used rocket stages and defunct satellites in orbit that require dedicated missions to remove. Going forward however, it is hard to see how the majority of ADR services performed will consist of customers paying companies to deorbit individual pieces of debris, any more than a city council would contract a company to sweep up a single piece of litter on the street.
General services will necessarily have to become the majority of services performed in the future: there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris over 1cm in size, and the companies with technology that can cost-effectively clean whole orbital regions of hazardous debris will inevitably come to dominate. Because payload mass is so expensive to transport into orbit, cost-effectiveness means mass-effectiveness, and we think our flyby mission profile – which saves on both propellent mass and the mass required for grappling/de-tumbling/de-orbiting space debris – will turn out to be a method that can effect both the Ad Hoc and General Services.
So again: Who is going to pay for these services? If the only possible service allowed by technology was of the Ad Hoc type, the only incentive to clean up would come from the liability the owner of that out-of-control satellite (or user of that anti-satellite weapon) might face in the international arena. My knowledge of international law is limited, but it doesn’t yet seem that any such punishment is in the works for previous occasions in which debris has been created, so it’s hard to see when in the future such a “stick” might eventuate. If however there were a technology that cost-effectively reduced the risk of collision with space debris over a whole orbital altitude, then the incentive to act would become more carrot than stick, with operators of satellite constellations becoming potential customers able to reap the benefits of that reduced risk, multiplied by as many satellites as they have in that orbital altitude.
What if the operator of that satellite constellation were a nation state party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, or an organisation within the jurisdiction of such a nation state? Our second hypothesis is that – rather than needing to modify the 1967 treaty or create a new one – countries could be incentivised to help subsidise the process of removing space debris through the creation of a list of “good citizen” countries acting to solve the space debris problem. This could be measured in comparison to the number of satellites that country already has in orbit, as this would be a surrogate for how big a part those countries played in generating the debris which is already in orbit.
In any case, the conversation with the Space ANGELS was very interesting food for thought, and I wish them the best for their course!