The Risk and Expense of Growing Space Debris

Space is becoming an increasingly crowded and dangerous place. That point was dramatically illustrated last month by the fiery demise of the German satellite Rosat, which plunged to Earth and scattered debris across the Bay of Bengal on October 23rd. In September, a NASA upper atmosphere research satellite (UARS) expired and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Thankfully, no person or property has ever been damaged by falling space debris. But with growing levels of debris comes growing risks of collisions, which will escalate the cost of operations. Recently the Guardian quoted Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law on this point:

"At the moment the cost of insuring the launch [of a rocket] is much higher than for its life in orbit, but the balance is going to change as the risk becomes greater," he told a seminar.

"There's a lot more junk from launched systems floating around. It's exponential. The more chunks going around the greater the risk of collision. Traveling at 17,500mph, you don't need too big a piece to cause serious damage."

We’ve addressed this danger previously on Satcom Frontier. In August Richard DalBello, Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs at Intelsat General published a two part series on new ways to manage risk and liability in space. You can read that post here.

As Richard wrote in August, the final frontier is getting increasingly crowded. The world’s largest satellite operators have responded to the new risk environment by increasing industry data sharing via the establishment of the Space Data Association (SDA). Much work remains to be done however, including data sharing between the U.S. government and industry. 

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