This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop policy solutions now and for the future.
The growing importance of space activities for society
Space activities have changed considerably since the launch of the earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. While essential for national security and defence, a growing number of extra-terrestrial applications can also have a considerable societal and economic impact. Our societies increasingly rely on well-functioning space-based infrastructure.
The use of satellites for observing the Earth, ensuring precise positioning and navigation or providing connectivity in remote areas, contributes to bridging the digital divide; monitoring a rapidly changing climate and the use of natural resources; and creating new economic opportunities. Space systems furthermore ensure the secure operation of transportation, energy and finance infrastructures and provide important inputs to public safety and food supply. Finally, the announcement and early deployment of several mega-constellations for satellite broadband—comprising possibly thousands of satellites in the low-earth orbit—has created significant optimism on future market prospects.
More on the Forum Network: What can the internet teach us about resilient food systems? by Ricardo Salvador, Director and Senior Scientist, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists
Are we doing enough to ensure the secure and sustainable operation of space-based infrastructure? And how much are our societies and the global economy at risk? Two new OECD publications provide insights into these questions.
Space debris are putting Earth’s orbits at risk
Space debris include everything from flecks of paints to defunct, uncontrollable parts of satellites and rocket bodies measuring several metric tonnes, all of which orbit the Earth at speeds that can reach several kilometres per second. The intensifying use of Earth’s orbits is accompanied by a growing accumulation of orbital space debris.
Debris can result from accidents, such as collisions or fuel tank explosions, as well as intentional acts like destroying spacecraft in missile tests, leaving satellites in orbit after the end of their mission etc. More than 20,000 objects bigger than 5–10cm are currently tracked by public and private actors around the world, but smaller untracked debris larger than 1cm can still be harmful, and probably number in the hundreds of thousands.
Monthly number of objects in the Earth’s orbit by object type
Historical increase of the catalogued 5-10cm objects based on data available on 1 March 2022
Notes: The three upward jumps in fragmentation debris correspond to: 1) the anti-satellite test conducted by the People’s Republic of China in 2007; 2) the accidental collision between the satellites Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 in 2009; and 3) the anti-satellite test conducted by the Russian Federation in November 2021.
Source: NASA (2022), “Orbital Debris Quarterly News 26:1”, https://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/quarterly-news/pdfs/ODQNv26i1.pdf.
Collisions with debris can damage or destroy satellites, and with thousands of satellites in orbit this becomes more and more likely. However, the overwhelming concern is that debris density reaches such levels that it triggers an irreversible chain reaction of in-orbit collisions between debris, the so-called Kessler Syndrome. This tipping point may ultimately render certain orbits of high socio-economic value unusable and create life-threatening situations for occupied space stations. The problem is that we don’t know if or even when this chain reaction will happen.
Over the last few decades, governments have put in place a number of mainly voluntary guidelines for satellite operators to mitigate debris creation, including clearing orbits within 25 years of mission completion or minimising the potential for in-orbit breakups, but compliance with these guidelines is too low to stabilise the orbital environment. Solutions to actively remove debris from orbit are in development, but they are costly and associated with high technological and political risk.
OECD helps in better measuring the space economy
Dozens of new national space programmes have been launched in the past ten years with many new commercial endeavours making the headlines. The time was ripe to publish the second edition of the OECD Handbook on Measuring the Space Economy (the first edition was published in 2012). This statistical manual aims to encourage and facilitate data collection among all actors involved in space activities. It notably provides:
The objective is to support the production of more internationally comparative data, with transparent utilisation of statistics for evaluation and assessment purposes. This, in turn, can better inform the decisions of policy makers, the private sector and other stakeholders.
Responding to the challenge with the OECD project on the economics of space sustainability
Government intervention will be crucial to address the space debris issue, but more economic evidence is needed to formulate the most appropriate policy responses. What are the socio-economic costs of space debris? What is the true value of space-based infrastructure? And what are the implications of different types of regulation and policy?
To boost innovative thinking, the OECD Space Forum and its partner space agencies and ministries have invited students and academics in universities and research organisations to study these questions and suggest options to limit further debris creation and/or clean-up strategies. The OECD publication Earth’s Orbits at Risk: The Economics of Space Sustainability presents these first original findings, notably providing:
- New approaches to quantifying the costs of space debris and the value of space infrastructure. We draw on methodologies from environmental economics to better understand the economic effects of space debris; examine cause-and-effect modelling to identify how costs and impacts ripple through global value chains; and review industry surveys to assess the value of specific segments of space-based infrastructure.
- New economic evidence on different policy options in space debris management. We identify the effects of different approaches to mitigate space debris (with or without the active removal of debris from orbit); assess the maturity of the market for active debris removal; and discuss the conditions under which satellite operators would act responsibly.
Based on the strong interest from both the space community and the academic world, a second phase of this OECD project on the economics of space sustainability is taking place in 2022-23, allowing more researchers and students from around the world to tackle this brand new research field. The results will further contribute evidence to support policies, regulations and private actors’ options.