Orbit Congestion Encouraging the Growth of a Commercial SSA Market - By Charlotte Croison, Consultant, Euroconsult

SatMagazine l February, 2021

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[Excerpt] Space is no longer a void. Unprecedented quantities of new objects are launched every month in orbit which, when they collide or simply reach their end of life, become imminent dangers for the space assets of all countries and commercial companies. Threatening the future of space activities, this tragedy of the commons of a new kind is however likely to encourage the emergence of a commercial Space Situational Awareness (SSA) market.

As the space environment is becoming increasingly crowded, space debris has become an increasing concern amongst both public and private space stakeholders. Human-made debris are largely the result of satellites which have reached end-of-life, objects intentionally released in orbit as part of missions, rocket parts, frozen propellant from propulsion systems as well as fragments resulting from on-orbit collisions and explosions.

According to ESA’s Space Debris Office, more than 34,000 objects larger than 10 cm and 128 million objects under 1 cm are currently orbiting around the Earth. Being the orbit most frequently used in terms of number of satellites and the easiest to access, these debris are largely concentrated in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

This finding is not without recalling the theory of the commons developed by William Forster Lloyd in the 20th century describing the overexploitation of a common land by individuals acting independently for their own account to the detriment of the common goods. Today, orbits are comparable to these lands: overexploited by space powers and commercial actors (many of which are more concerned with short-term profitability and generating revenue streams than with long-term space environment sustainability) to the point that these orbits’ congestion have short and long-term impacts on the sustainable use of space.