On July 28, 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued the National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan. The 14-page document, which builds on previous implementation plans to limit the amount of debris orbiting the Earth (also known as “space junk”), identifies 44 specific actions for agencies across three pillars with the goal of promoting the United States not only as a leader in space activities, but also as a responsible and sustainable actor in the space environment.
The Implementation Plan comes as the number of satellites launched into space has skyrocketed in recent years. While less than 300 satellites were launched per year on average between 2010 and 2019, at least 1,200 of the approximately 5,000 satellites currently orbiting the Earth were launched in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, debris from man-made objects launched into space has been accumulating since the 1950s; as of January 2021, there were approximately 23,000 debris objects 10 centimetres in size (about the size of a softball) or larger hurtling around the Earth at speeds over 13 times that of a fired bullet.
To combat this, the Implementation Plan creates objectives and assigns roles to agencies including the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Commerce (DOC), as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and NASA, among others. Examples of proposed actions and areas of research include:
- Developing a database for satellite operators to report on anomalies as well as the root causes of anomalies and lessons learned
- Researching better capabilities to predict, detect, attribute, and characterize orbital debris strikes and their effects on spacecraft
- Designing future satellites to be more resilient and therefore less likely to create space debris
- Adding on-board propulsion systems and/or other devices to move active spacecraft out of harm’s way and decommission them at the end of their lifecycle
A key concern highlighted in Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), published by the Trump Administration in 2018, was that emerging commercial ventures in space were increasingly outpacing government policies and processes to address them. The Implementation Plan accordingly includes policy recommendations for the US Government, including:
- Creating shared rules for safe on-orbit operations
- Re-examining licensing requirements for new satellites to incorporate safe practices and risk assessments into their operations concepts
- Re-evaluating the 2019 Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) by launching a short-term study on the impact of changing deorbit requirements for the US Government, including a cost-benefit analysis of reducing deorbit timelines
- Increasing interagency coordination, such as between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA to address space weather effects on orbital debris models
- Expanding the current catalogue of space objects tracked by relevant agencies to include parameters of objects that are necessary for the design of debris remediation
- Developing and using common metrics to measure risks posed by orbital debris
Lastly, the Implementation Plan reflects that DOD is transitioning certain responsibilities for civil and commercial operators to the DOC. The report also states that the US government “envisions that industry will play the leading role in providing remediation services” and proposes a number of public-private collaborations, such as:
- Creating grand challenges or prizes for developing technologies to address debris generation
- Convening stakeholders towards developing a risk framework describing how various orbital debris scenarios might negatively impact them
- Collaborating with industry to develop cost estimates for various remediation capabilities
- Expanding representation on US Government algorithm and model development advisory committees and working groups to include subject matter expertise from both government and non-government entities, including commercial industry
- Developing a research collaboration platform for the orbital debris community that would encourage public-private cooperation
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