Human activity in space is accelerating rapidly. In 2020 alone, 1,200 satellites were launched. While there are currently around 3,400 operational satellites in space, there are plans to launch up to 60,000 more in the next decade. Many of these will make up large satellite constellations, which will provide telecommunication services. However, each additional item put into space increases the risk of collision and the potential generation of new pieces of debris.
Space debris is the term given to any defunct object in space, from items as large as lost or abandoned spacecraft to objects as small as lens caps, bolts and paint flakes. There are currently over 100 million pieces of space debris. Thirty thousand of these are larger than 10 cm and mainly result from collisions and explosions. These debris can collide with one another or with active spacecraft, generating more debris. If enough debris is created in a particular orbital region, it could cause a cascade of collisions, threatening the safety of future space operations.
Cluttered space might not seem like a problem to those of us on the ground, but we rely on space-based infrastructure for many of our vital services, such as communication, navigation, financial transactions and environmental monitoring. However, although the technology that makes this space activity possible is advancing every day, the binding international agreements behind space activity have not evolved. The five United Nations treaties on outer space adopted in the 1960s and 1970s do not directly address the space debris problem. To address this gap, non-binding guidelines have been developed in the past 20 years, to limit the creation of new debris and reduce collision risk. However, compliance with these guidelines is low.
This complex risk landscape in an area with insufficient governance has led the EPFL International Risk Governance Center (IRGC) to begin a new project, in collaboration with the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) and Space Innovation, studying the management of risks related to space debris to ensure space sustainability.
“There are many risks inherent to space activity,” said Romain Buchs, IRGC’s scientific assistant who recently wrote a Spotlight on risk article that maps the space risk landscape. “But it is important to focus on collision risk, as it is clear this problem is only growing, and there are still not adequate policies, regulations and business models in place to address it.”
In his article, Buchs produced a detailed diagram mapping how different activities and events in space can cause an array of harmful interconnected outcomes. At the center of this diagram is space debris, illustrating the urgency of addressing this issue now, especially in light of plans to significantly increase space activities. He called for more scrutiny of the risks associated with space activity to ensure the availability of critical space infrastructure and the realisation of a thriving space economy.
“There are several options for space debris remediation, but they are expensive and none is technically ready,” said IRGC executive director Marie-Valentine Florin. “Implementing remediation through active debris removal, just-in-time collision avoidance or other techniques requires cooperation between space actors, including a willingness to share costs. Currently, the motivation to act is missing because there is a lack of positive incentives, and risk of liability or reputational damage for negligent or irresponsible actors is too low.”
While much of the attention is focused on technical ways to clean up existing space debris, there is a need to understand the goals, motivations and behaviour of major space actors in the US, Europe, Russia, China and India and to consider what kinds of international governance structures could help prevent the worst outcomes. A collaborative project like this allows IRGC to bring its risk governance and policy expertise to the field of space debris.
As part of the project, an expert workshop was organised in May, bringing together representatives from space agencies, industry, academia, NGOs and the UN to discuss international governance of risks related to space debris and lay out concrete policy options. Based on the workshop discussions, IRGC is now working on a background paper, a policy brief and some shorter articles to reach a wide audience.
“The goal is to support policymakers and other decision-makers by developing realistic approaches to deal with this problem, and to bridge the knowledge and communication gaps between space debris experts and the wider community,” Florin said.