The new space race is moving quickly but there is a trash problem that could derail it all.
My new Off Earth series was initially an idea about an asteroid mining company. While I was doing research to understand what it would look like to mine asteroids I learned about the debris circling our planet. Asteroid mining became part of the backstory and orbital salvage became a key element.
If you aren’t interested in trash in our orbit, here is the quick update on the Off Earth Series progress –
Book 1 – They Awake
Target release date – 4/13/2018 On schedule!
Last weeks word count/target – 18,802/15,000 (it was a Holiday week, but I crushed it)
This weeks word count target – 22,000 words
Total words/projected – 18,802/95,000
And on to some of the cool stuff driving my story…
Over 29,000 pieces of material, mostly parts of satellites, larger than .10 inches (10 cm) are freely circling our planet.
This debris routinely causes damage to existing satellites and even the International Space Station. There have been times when the ISS was forced to change it’s orbit to avoid a piece of trash. This picture shows the damage something estimated to be the size of a paint chip can do to an orbital vehicle –
If you haven’t been paying attention to the new space race, it’s very exciting. Private companies are launching rockets and sending real payloads into orbit. There is renewed commitment to landing on the moon and space tourism is on the verge of becoming common. More stuff and more people are going into orbit than ever before.
The orbital debris situation will get worse before it gets better. While I was daydreaming about my story I came up with three business opportunities for an Orbital salvage company.
Opportunity #1 – Disaster mitigation
The first profitable opportunity for space salvage is in disaster mitigation. I believe it is in the best interest of governments and commercial businesses to clean up orbit before a disaster happens. If the ESA, NASA and Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) joined together to offer a time-bound contract for cleaning up orbit it would drive business and innovation.
Simply looking at the value of communications, navigation, weather and military satellites that each of those agencies represent would warrant a sizable contract. The terrestrial economy is so heavily reliant on orbital technology that the economic impact of a satellite colliding with trash could stretch far beyond the individual satellite damaged.
When we introduce potential risk to human lives it makes even more sense. Can you imagine how our planet would react to losing a space plane full of tourists, or students, because a 50-year-old fragmented circuit board smashed into the crew compartment?
There is value in solving the problem before it becomes too big.
Opportunity #2 – Recovering sunk costs
Getting stuff into space is expensive. That’s a major reason that launch solutions were one of the first pieces of the space economy to be commercialized. It costs around $10,000 per pound ($22,000 per kilogram) to send material into space. That number is coming down but that doesn’t help the launches that have already occurred.
The debris in orbit around Earth represents billions of dollars of launch costs. Letting it float aimlessly is a waste of resources. Allowing it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere or crash uncontrolled onto the planets surface loses that value completely.
Even collecting the material and holding it until we can develop orbital recycling system will help retain some of that launch value. The stuff is up there, we don’t need it back on Earth and getting more stuff up there is still expensive. Feels like a business opportunity in there.
Opportunity #3 – Sparing for non critical systems
Humans like to be comfortable and have some luxuries. Early space adventures will go without in exchange for the thrill of of being in orbit, but that won’t last long. When the orbital population expands there will be an increasing demand for creature comforts.
All the pieces of satellites and machines in orbit could be sorted, inspected and inventoried. If someone needs a spare washer to repair their coffee maker or aroma therapy machine why not take one from salvage inventory to make the repair at a fraction of the cost of launching a new one from Earth.
I wouldn’t advocate for repairing mission critical systems with salvage parts. But there could be a scenario where a suitable spare is in orbit as salvage and could save lives while waiting for newly manufactured parts to be launched from Earth. If we’ve learned anything from our history with trash on Earth, it’s recycle, reuse, reduce.
People are currently working on the space debris problem. My guess is they are smarter than me and could discredit each of my suggestions with a few key points. One of them being, all that junk belongs to someone. You cannot simply go into orbit and start collecting other peoples stuff, it’s stealing (see the sunk cost idea).
There are also engineering challenges with trying to capture a piece of material moving at 17,500 miles per hour (almost 23 times the speed of sound). Not just anyone can send something up to try and salvage this debris. A collision with a poorly designed salvage vessel would result in more of the problem it was trying to solve.
But those challenges could help to drive the opportunity. A smart group of engineers and investors could purchase all the debris for a fraction of it’s cost (governments would love to get even a little money back for stuff they have no use for). This would also remove the responsibility for the pieces from the agencies that launched them. Once someone owns it all they would be even more intent on extracting value.