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. Watch a brief video that summarises the problem and the policy options (2021).
A complex and uncertain risk landscape
Near-Earth space is 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, with 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 like the 1,750 kg Soviet-era spy satellite Kosmos 1408, which was intentionally destroyed on 15 November 2021, creating more than 1,500 trackable pieces of debris, to tiny paint flakes. Due to their large orbital velocity, even collisions with small objects can inflict 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 the material used to foster the workshop discussions.
This report describes the context in which the risk develops, paying special attention 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 orbital space allocation. It highlights major challenges, including the rise of large satellite constellations, the low compliance with internationally agreed-upon guidelines and the financing of remediation.
Expanding on the report, IRGC’s policy brief Policy options to address collision risk from space debris offers a range of policy options and generic recommendations to improve the assessment, evaluation and management of collision risk.
This policy brief acknowledges that (i) the evidence available is insufficient for a comprehensive scientific assessment of the risk and (ii) the evaluation of the possible response strategies, including their associated costs and benefits, is incomplete. However, given the importance of the growing space economy and the extent of adverse consequences, if certain risks materialise, it would be a mistake to wait until much more granular evidence relevant to policy decisions becomes available.
The policy brief offers a menu of policy options to:
- support or mandate a more comprehensive evaluation of the risk;
- foster the development and deployment of technology for mitigation and remediation, and the implementation of best practices;
- enhance national regulations and the supervision of space activities for better compliance; and
- engage in international collaboration and build capacity across different governance levels.
Workshop on Low Earth Orbit Kinetic Space Safety
On 4 – 5 May 2022, the Low Earth Orbit Kinetic Space Safety Workshop brought together a diverse group of distinguished space professionals for two days of engaged discussions at EPFL. Representatives of spacecraft operators, research institutes, space agencies and governments discussed most promising approaches to enhance space safety.
Keynote speeches presented the state-of-the art in four vital domains with interactive panels that engaged the audience in discussions, assessing the different proposals by comparing their benefits, costs and maturity. A summary of the workshop was produced.
- Low Earth Orbit Kinetic Space Safety Workshop (Workshop summary, 2022) (pdf)
- Intensifying space activity calls for increased scrutiny of risks (Spotlight on risk article, April 2021) (pdf)
- Policy options to address collision risk from space debris, November 2021
- Collision risk from space debris: Current status, challenges and response strategies, June 2021
- Débris spatiaux: avertissement suisse au monde, 15 December 2021, Swissinfo
- Making space a safer place, 7 October 2021, Dimensions – EPFL Magazine
- #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