In early 2021, IRGC began a new project to study the governance of risks related to space debris and assess policy options to ensure the safe and sustainable use of space, in collaboration with the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) and Space Innovation.
A complex and uncertain risk landscape
The pace of space activities is accelerating drastically. There are plans to launch multiple large constellations of satellites to provide broadband internet to Earth, regularly send space tourists into orbit, create human settlements on the Moon and Mars, and mine asteroids. Although these plans might not all come to fruition, their realisation will require that near-Earth space is safe and accessible.
Near-Earth space is both our gateway to the solar system and a vital resource. The satellites it hosts form a critical infrastructure on which numerous Earth systems rely, from transportation to financial markets. The services they provide are increasingly used in everyday life, raising the prominence of space safety, security and sustainability. This infrastructure will grow significantly in the next decade as there are plans to launch up to 60,000 additional satellites. In our Spotlight on risk article Intensifying space activity calls for increased scrutiny of risks, we highlight the complexity of the risk landscape inherent to human activities in near-Earth space, the ambiguity of space actors’ behaviour and the pervasive uncertainty regarding the risks. Characterising, assessing and managing the risks associated with space activities are of paramount importance.
Governing collision risk from space debris
Space-based infrastructure is threatened by the risk of collision between operational satellites and a growing amount of space debris—non-functional human-made objects. Space debris exists in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from defunct satellites as large as a bus to tiny paint flakes. Due to their large orbital velocity, even collisions with small objects can have devastating damage. The forecasted increase in space traffic coupled with weak compliance with international space debris mitigation guidelines could dramatically increase the risk of in-orbit collisions.
In May 2021, IRGC convened an interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder group of experts to consider the risk governance challenges posed by space debris. The report Collision risk from space debris: Current status, challenges and response strategies is based on preparatory material used to foster the workshop discussions.
This report describes the context in which the risk develops, with special attention paid to the ongoing changes in space actors and missions. It characterises the collision risk posed by space debris, explains the current management strategy, at both the technical and governance levels, and presents ways to reinforce it. The report also offers a range of possible new strategies such as marketable permits, regulatory fees and the allocation of orbital space. It highlights major challenges, including the rise of large satellite constellations, low-compliance with internationally agreed-upon guidelines and the financing of remediation. This publication serves as the foundation for deliberations about the policy options and next steps that are needed.
- Collision risk from space debris: Current status, challenges and response strategies, 2021, Report
- Spotlight on risk: Intensifying space activity calls for increased scrutiny of risks, 2021, Article
- #SpaceWatchGL Opinion: Addressing the limitations of our current approach to collision risk from space debris, 11 July 2021, SpaceWatch.Global
- Le danger du chaos spatial, 10 July 2021, Le Temps
- Les débris spatiaux, casse-tête pour la gouvernance internationale, 8 July 2021, Heidi.news
- EPFL works to address debris collision risk, 19 May 2021, EPFL news article