Panel: Resolving the orbital debris problem is similar to addressing climate change

NASA has finished a study to determine what additional roles the space agency and the United States government as a whole should play in reducing orbital debris and fostering space sustainability.

“It is an extremely hard issue,” said Bhavya Lal, who works as the NASA’s senior advisor in charge of the budget and finance, on September 28. Lal linked the debris problem to the argument over how to deal with climate change during a panel discussion at Space Sector Market Conference, which was held in Cambridge, Mass. “There are international, regulatory, and commercial dimensions,” she explained.

Some of the study’s takeaways have already been mentioned. “We need to make less debris,” Lal said, “which means no ASAT [anti-satellite] assessments in space and no satellites with no propulsion.” “The other component is that we need to know where everything is so we can be able to maneuver around it.”

‘We can learn from other sectors,’ Lal said. “The climate challenge is nearly the same.” And it’s evident that the government can’t assure a long-term space environment on its own, she continued. “We would like to put out minimal greenhouse gas emissions; we want to remove greenhouse gases… there are debates about carbon price and trade schemes, a lot of remedies that are being examined” when it comes to climate change.

According to Lal, a similar logic may be used in space. “Whatever we do, it can’t just be a government effort; it needs to be a joint effort between government and industry. It will have to be a global effort. It doesn’t matter what the US does if other countries are responsible for two-thirds of the trash. And I’m expecting that NASA will play a much bigger contribution in this area in the months and years to come.”

Concerns about congested orbits are growing as the number of satellites deployed into orbit to offer services like communications, navigation, and Earth observation increases dramatically. At the conference, Sita Sonty, who is a partner as well as an associate director at Boston Consulting Group, stated that the issue of orbital debris is attracting industrial investors’ attention and that many believe the private sector must assist finance solutions to the problem.

“I believe there are some concerns about what to remove first. Do we have to get rid of the very huge bodies? Is there anything else we can get rid of? And those are communal discussions to have,” she said. Investors are eager to invest in enterprises that, for example, provide removal of debris as a service. Still, they must be assured that there is a strategic governance framework in place. That governance structure must be respected, and there must be a real regulatory mechanism in place.”

According to Sonty, if the sector sees a “push toward the formation of a worldwide framework,” “investors will sense some stability and predictability in this section of the industry and will be willing to put a bet there.”

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