NASA Conducts Study on the Cost and Benefits of Orbital Debris Removal

A recent NASA study suggests that the costs and dangers associated with orbital debris can be decreased by removing it. Orbital debris is an increasing worry for satellite operators. The research offers a thorough cost-benefit analysis of orbital debris repair. It was released by NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy on March 10. The study examined various methods for eliminating both large and tiny debris. In addition, it examined the advantages they gave to satellite operators. This aimed to decrease the need for avoidance maneuvers and prevent satellite losses caused by debris collisions.

Based on the report, some orbital debris removal techniques might pay for themselves in less than ten years. The most efficient methods entailed removing tiny debris between 1 and 10 centimeters in size using ground- and space-based lasers. Both laser technologies would provide benefits that outweigh their expenses within a decade. Other successful strategies included “just-in-time collision avoidance.” This involves deploying rockets or lasers to shove junk away from satellites or other debris in order to prevent collisions. In the worst-case scenario, such methods might only take a few decades to produce net advantages.

According to the report, there could be significant upfront expenses associated with developing and deploying remediation capabilities. Realizing benefits may be delayed. As a result, there may not seem to be enough incentives to take fast action. Larger debris items returning to Earth might reach break-even in as short as 20 to 25 years. Up to a century may be required in the worst possible case. Similar timelines were discovered in the study for a “sweeper” spacecraft that would remove tiny trash.

The impression that such devices could be used as weapons is one issue with employing lasers to clear debris. Nevertheless, the study found that the laser technology for debris-removal lacks sufficient power to be a viable weapon against operational satellites. Perceptions, however, could be more challenging to manage.

Interestingly, the report discovered that today’s costs associated with debris for satellite operators are little. The report’s model, which was restricted to U.S. operators, calculated that these operators’ yearly expenses would be only $58 million, with both military and commercial operational satellites accounting for the majority of this total. The report made the case that remediation strategies like those examined should still be taken into account.

Bhavya Lal, the associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy at NASA, underlined the importance of evaluating the efficacy of mitigation, tracking, characterization, and remediation in a way that makes it possible to compare risk reduction methods side by side. The most efficient risk reduction portfolio can be understood with the help of such information. Lal stated that prior to beginning a second phase that will enhance the model and integrate even smaller debris, NASA intended to host a roundtable discussion with several stakeholders to seek feedback on the study.