I watched yesterday’s latest in the series of Senate Commerce Committee hearings on Reopening the American Frontier. There was, as billed, lots of good talk about public private partnerships in the development of the space frontier, but what I found most interesting was one of the responses of Dr. Moriba K. Jah to a question about orbital debris, of which there is a lot in orbit, from Senator Ted Cruz.
Background: In his written testimony here, Dr. Jah explains the magnitude of the orbital debris problem as follows:
The US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) currently has over 24,000 records active in its space situational awareness database, commonly referred to as the Department of Defense “catalog.” Of these, well over 18,400 records correspond to well-tracked, well-understood [resident space objects] RSOs in Earth-centric orbit, roughly 1,300 of which are operational satellites; the rest are so-called “space junk.”
In response to Senator Cruz’s question about what to do about space debris, Dr. Jah said, among other things, that the European Space Agency has something called a Clean Space initiative which is working to identify and remove space debris. He noted that it’s more expensive to bring something down than to put up something that works. He also said that it’s politically not very feasible because any sovereign nation is the owner of that piece of debris. (But see here for a discussion of the ownership issue.) Dr. Jah himself advocates a civil space traffic management public private partnership.
De-orbiting. What delighted me, however, was his mention of de-orbiting space debris. I think someone should offer a prize to anyone who figures out how to bring it in. I even wrote a science fiction novel to that effect titled Manx Prize, where a consortium of satellite and orbitat operators headquartered on the Isle of Man offers a prize to anyone who first brings in a large, dead satellite. Safely. It made sense to me that the companies who need space cleaned up should offer an incentive to do so, one perhaps large enough for the contestant to be able to purchase the zombie satellite on orbit. Just to be clear, the Consortium of Man is in no way modeled after the Space Data Association, which in real life is situated on the Isle of Man. I, like everyone else, just really like saying “Manx.”
There are a host of legal issues associated with de-orbiting someone else’s property. The offer of a prize means that the contestants have to figure them out as well as all the technical issues. Charlotte Fisher is the engineer trying to win this prize, and the story centers around her efforts and travails, but she has a lawyer for the other stuff, like purchasing dead satellites from their owners and getting access to proprietary technical specifications. The story involves regulatory shenanigans. I was at the FAA when I wrote this, so I was sensitive about naming the regulatory agency so I just called it “the regulator.” It’s nice and ominous sounding, isn’t it? I got around ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, but in no way that constitutes sound legal advice for anyone in the present. CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, came in handy at the end.
For the technology at the time I was writing the book Space News had a lot of stories about dead satellites. Someone won a real life prize for a sticky boom, and I found a design for what Charlotte called her “brake-and-bake.” The day job had me good on launch, ok on reentry, but pretty poor on orbit. Basically, my knowledge tracked the FAA’s evolving jurisdiction: but I knew what I needed to research, I knew where to find things, and I had access to a few good orbital mechanics.
Anyway, a prize would be cool. I recall hearing that the Ansari X Prize produced a collective expenditure on reusable suborbital rockets by all the contestants far in excess of what the prize offered. Competition can work. Think of the glory. Now, if only there were someone around with the right incentives to offer a prize for getting rid of debris.
And, if you feel like picking up a copy of the book, I thank you in advance.