'Orbit tax' proposed to tackle space junk problem

'Orbit tax' proposed to tackle space junk problem
By: Technology Posted On: May 26, 2020 View: 43

'Orbit tax' proposed to tackle space junk problem

Scientists have proposed introducing a new "orbit tax" to tackle the growing problem of debris or "space junk" encircling the Earth.

Although it can seem like an endless void from Earth, the truth is our near-space area is getting quite crowded, warns a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There are many old satellites and both natural and man-made debris crowding low-Earth orbit. Every time a new satellite is launched it adds to the risk of a collision.

SpaceX Starlink 5 passing above Svendborg, Denmark, on 21 April
Image: Researchers propose a tax on satellites

According to the new study by economists, the most effective way to solve the problem of space junk isn't to try and capture this debris or try to make old satellites crash to Earth.

Instead they propose an international agreement to charge satellite operators an "orbital-use fee", essentially a tax, for every satellite put into orbit.

The annual fee, rising to $235,000 (£188,000) annually per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040, claim the researchers.

"Space is a common resource, but companies aren't accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch," said co-author Dr Matthew Burgess.

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"We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators," added Dr Burgess, of the University of Colorado Boulder.

The objects crowding low-Earth orbit are an example of what economists call the Tragedy of the Commons - when many individuals acting in their own self-interest ultimately ruin a shared resource.

There have been many solutions to the issue of space junk, including technology which can capture debris using nets or harpoons, or destroy it with lasers.

The net is deployed to capture the target debris
Technological solutions have been proposed to tackle debris

But the researchers say these solutions won't work because they don't change the incentives for satellite operators. Instead, the economists propose an orbit tax.

"That's not the same as a launch fee," said Dr Akhil Rao, the paper's lead author.

"Launch fees by themselves can't induce operators to deorbit their satellites when necessary, and it's not the launch but the orbiting satellite that causes the damage."

Back in 2018 a tiny object collided with the Russian side of the International Space Station, puncturing the cabin and causing an air leak.

An astronaut had to initially plug the puncture with their finger before using tape to patch up the hole.

An astronaut had to cover the hole with his finger

But of course, for this system to work, every country in the world launching satellites would need to be participating - and they would need be applying the tax at the same rate.

The researchers say similar approaches are already in place to tax carbon emissions and for fisheries management.

The impact of reducing collisions and collision-related costs would help drive the satellite industry from the $600bn market it is projected to become by 2040 to a $3tn one.

"In other sectors, addressing the Tragedy of the Commons has often been a game of catch-up with substantial social costs. But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate," Dr Burgess added

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