Investors may be wary of backing start-ups with no guaranteed future government funding
WASHINGTON — A U.S. Space Force general recently made headlines calling for the development of a commercial service to remove orbital debris. These statements convey a sense of urgency about the danger of collisions in space, but government indecision on how to manage the problem has slowed private investment and efforts to develop space cleanup projects. , says industry analysts.
In a white paper published Oct. 21 by consulting firm Avastent, analyst Nick Bolger pointed to comments last month by Rear Adm. says. Industry is pursuing space debris removal as a business opportunity.
However, from an industry perspective, Bolger said the business case is less clear. “We need to see significant progress across the industry to prove this claim,” he said of his Burt comments.
With 16,000 satellites expected to be launched between 2021 and 2025, there is broad consensus that space sustainability and safe spaceflight operations are at risk. But action to address this problem is “challenged by shifting priorities of national and international governing bodies,” argues Bolger.
“Different opinions of regulatory officials on how to approach debris removal are preventing the U.S. government itself from taking action,” he said. A major obstacle is the uncertainty about which agency should take the lead in a particular area. Case in point is the shift of responsibility for space traffic management from the Department of Defense to the Department of Commerce, which has been bogged down in research and analysis for years.
The Space Force has said it would like to purchase the Debris Removal Service, but it is not clear who would make the purchase decision if space traffic control were to move to another agency.
“As far as the business case is concerned, I think investors could be wary of backing some of these start-ups without government guarantees of future funding,” said Bolger. .
Another concern, he said, is the lack of a standard metric for crash risk. Government agencies “self-regulate space operations, often leveraging a variety of data sources and risk criteria to determine the need for collision avoidance maneuvers.”
While there have been a number of high-stakes and near-miss collisions in recent years, “government agencies have shown little indication of leading the deployment of space debris removal and remediation technologies in the near future,” Bolger noted.
What can be done to incentivize the industry
Space debris removal technologies such as space tugboats and junk collectors are currently in the early stages of testing and development, but these companies do not yet have a wide range of customers.
One way to encourage commercial satellite operators to remove debris is to change satellite insurance requirements. The United States requires satellite operators to insure against damages caused by third parties and against government claims. “Operators will seriously consider off-orbit and cleanup services that can avoid paying premiums for a longer period of time,” Bolger said.
The World Economic Forum’s Space Sustainability Rating System currently scores operators based on de-orbit planning, crash maneuvers and data sharing. A rating system is used based on operator discretion. Bolger said the adoption of a space sustainability rating system by the US federal government would likely lead to self-regulation of space activities.
“This system will encourage operators to incorporate a debris remediation plan before entering orbit,” he said.
Disjointed regulatory efforts create uncertainty in the industry, Bolger added. For example, the Federal Communications Commission recommended that NASA require a propulsion system for constellations carrying more than 25 spacecraft and flying more than 420 kilometers, after which all satellite collision avoidance We are deferring an update to the operational requirements.
“This forced the FCC to seek additional public comment before issuing another report and order.
There is also continuing disagreement among government agencies on whether the long-standing “25-year rule” should be changed. The rule states that satellites and launch debris should not remain in orbit for more than 25 years after the mission ends. Some have called for that timeline to be shortened, especially in highly congested regions of low Earth orbit.