Whose place in space? A tragedy of the commons

Whose place in space? A tragedy of the commons

Just as we are oblivious to the invisible electromagnetic signals around us, many are unaware of the infrastructure and capital required to operate and maintain common signal-based services, such as T.V., internet and mobile. This May, 8 major satellites are scheduled to be rocket launched into orbit. On May 4th a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the JCSAT 14 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with the function of supporting data networks, television broadcasters and mobile communications users in Japan, East Asia, Russia, Oceania, Hawaii, and other Pacific Islands. On May 17th from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Intelsat 31/DLA-2 will be launched to provide Central America, South America, and the Caribbean with direct-to-home television broadcasts.

Space operations like these offer endless possibilities. They allow firms to benefit from more efficient communication abilities, greater information accessibility, and lower transport costs on account of high quality GPS technology, among other things. Everyday citizens are able to access services that increase their well-being, whether that be in the form of entertainment, information provision, or safety. Whilst the average cost of sending a rocket/satellite into space is approximately $450 million per mission, the benefits to society are numerous and inclusive of the masses. However, because these benefits are remote from the large upfront costs, space operations are at risk of occurring at a below-optimal level; that is, space missions are a positive externality. To achieve a socially optimal level of space travel and ameliorate the positive externality, government intervention in the form of subsidies and grants are more commonplace than one may think.

Speaking on Feb 2nd, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced that “president Obama is proposing an additional $18.5 billion for NASA”, with the focus of building upon the “significant investments the administration has made in America’s space program over the past six years.” Similarly, other space agencies such as the Japanese Aeronautic Exploration Association (JAXA) have always been financed solely by government funds. Such government support aims to decrease the private marginal costs of production for suppliers by reducing input costs, such that the supply of space travel increases to a level that maximises social welfare (where the social marginal costs equal the social marginal benefits of producing space travel).

But while space travel may seem to be a win for all, will the global community be able to continue such pursuits in future? Current practises of sending shuttles into space for the benefit of today’s generations are arguably an unsustainable venture. This is because, particularly throughout the 20th century, the number of non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris has skyrocketed.

Over 500,000 pieces of space junk (useless debris orbiting Earth) are vigilantly being tracked in a bid to reduce the risk of collision with current and future missions. According to NASA chief Scientist for orbital debris Nicholas Johnson, “the greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris”, since even miniscule debris such as tiny paint flecks are able to damage spacecraft at high velocities. The degree of this issue was evident on February 10th in 2009, when an abandoned Russian satellite collided with a U.S. commercial satellite. The destruction added approximately 2000 pieces of space junk into orbit. Events like this demonstrate how the wrath of orbiting debris not only endangers current space operations, but increases the risk of future impact.

A ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario has evolved, where no one nation feels overly responsible for lessening their output of space junk, leaning on the premise that cooperation on the matter was required by all space agencies. But with increasing quantities of space junk that require greater monitoring, equipment, maintenance and repair costs, as well as additional safety precautions, astronaut guidelines, evasive action, and technology needs that reduce mission efficiency, the need for unification on the issue has become more and more dire. That is why in recent years, the space organisations of Russia, China, Japan, France, Europe, and the U.S. have begun collaboration to tackle these looming issues.

When considering strategies to deal with space junk, funding research to assist with useful technology advancements and imposing penalty systems for space litterers are two popular options. Futuristic ideas, such as creating an Electrodynamic Debris Eliminator (essentially a space-age net and harpoon to capture rogue debris) or Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device (an ultra-thin balloon that envelopes debris and causes aerodynamic drag, making space junk burn up upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere), are examples of innovative designs proposed by leading space engineers and scientists. Such technology developments would reduce collision risk, increasing the supply of space travel and achieving the socially optimal level of production at a lower net cost. However, there is a high financial cost associated with this longer-term approach, as well as issues of who should outlay the research and development funding to deal with the space debris of others.

Some form of tax on polluters is also likely to disincentive the deposition of additional of space junk. However, the ability to levy an agreed upon tax with conditions that suit a global arena would be extraordinarily difficult to administrate and implement internationally. Furthermore, such a tax on space junk may discourage space travel, as countries would face the risk of having to pay for any debris they accidentally leave behind.

The issue of space junk needs a resolution such that future generations can benefit from a space environment that offers a high degree of social welfare much like today. In extreme circumstances, imagine a world without internet, T.V., or phones. Without any action humanity faces regression in the long-term. When future generations speak of the 21st century, will it be our space waste that defines our generation?