There are currently 4,852 operating satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) from some eighty nations, though roughly half are U.S. commercial and government/military satellites. They are essential for everything from nuclear command and control, climate observation to GPS, and the internet, streaming video, and ATMs. Moreover, an already crowded earth orbit is getting worse. The private sector is driving the new space economy enabled by new technologies to miniaturize satellites, like the aforementioned cubesats. Google and Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone plan to launch some 50,000 cubesats in this decade.
Currently, Starlink (owned by SpaceX) has approximately 2,200 small satellites in LEO and working. That’s about half of SpaceX’s planned first-generation network of 4,408 Starlink satellites.
The 4,400 satellites will be spread among five different orbital “shells” at different altitudes and inclinations. SpaceX, founded and led by Elon Musk, has stated it eventually intends to launch as many as 42,000 satellites.
An explosion of private-sector space business—from satellite launches and space shuttles to the quest for mining asteroids and planets—has blurred the line between civilian and military activities, racing ahead of any duly considered global regulation. Dealing with space junk, however, is the most promising area for cooperation. The threat of space debris to all nations’ vital economic and national security assets in space—democracy-autocracy polarization notwithstanding—would, like climate change, seem such an instance.
Last November, Russia shot a missile into space to test its anti-satellite technology to see if it could destroy or incapacitate one of its own orbiting satellites. It did. The U.S. State Department says that missile smashed the Russian spacecraft into 1,500 large pieces and hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, which resulted in a dangerous cloud of debris. That forced the crew aboard the ISS (International Space Station) to take shelter in their escape pops, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The resulting debris passed close to the ISS, but didn’t hit it. The crew was fine, but the incident highlighted just how big of a problem space debris can be.
In mid April, U.S. vice president Kamala Harris said the US would not conduct tests like this and called on other countries to do the same, but that promise won’t reduce the space junk already out there. Missile tests are just one way that space debris is created. Sometimes used rockets and old satellites are intentionally left up in space threatening to hit satellites or space rockets. And the more of it that space junk floating around, the harder it will be to avoid.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network is the premier mechanism for monitoring space junk. Russia has some orbital monitoring capacity, but few other states do. Moreover, in addition to its unrivaled space surveillance capacity to monitor debris, the United States already has Spacing Sharing Agreements with over 100 nations to provide data and notifications to avoid collisions. These are important global public goods that can provide diplomatic leverage for shaping space rules and standards on space debris. The United States had given a heads-up to China about such risks during the Obama administration, according to well-placed sources.
In addition, private sector firms and startups in Japan, the United States, and Europe are devising ways to remove space debris, in what appears to be a coming sector of the space economy. The U.S. Space Force’s technology arm is already exploring the possibility of funding private firms to remove space debris. There are a range of methods of space junk removal being developed from satellite magnets, nets, harpoons, and even spider-like webs. These are all likely future contractors, bearing the risks of research and development.
International cooperation will be needed to effectively clean up space junk. There are only a handful of high-performance space-faring states—the United States, Russia, China, the EU, Japan, and India. As discussed above, the United States is well-positioned as first among equals to launch an ad hoc public-private coalition of space powers partnering with the private sector to pool resources and (non-national security-sensitive) capabilities to better monitor and clean up space debris and seek mutually acceptable codes of conduct and rules for such activities.
Robert Manning and Peter Wilson suggest the methods and procedures should be based an open architecture with adherence to the principle of form follows function: open to emerging space powers—South Korea, Brazil, Israel, and others.