The National Orbital Debris R&D Plan outlines priorities for federal research and development in topical areas across three core Elements to manage the risks posed by orbital debris:
- the limitation of debris generation by design,
- the tracking and characterization of the debris object population, and
- the remediation or repurposing of orbital debris.
Each are vital to the sustained use of the orbital environment. As the recently released United States Space Priorities Framework emphasizes, preserved access to and use of space is a fundamental national interest; space capabilities provide the critical data, products, and services that drive innovation and underpin our modern way of life, in the United States and around the world.
As part of the Orbital Debris Research and Development Interagency Working Group under the National Science and Technology Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a Request for Comment in November of 2021 seeking input on how the Plan should be implemented. It asked for public input on any gaps the Plan failed to address, which activities should be prioritized for immediate action, and potential avenues for coordination between actors across public and private sectors.
In response to this request, Astroscale U.S. submitted a comment identifying priorities for immediate federal interagency attention and action. These are the steps that we believe are vital to shift the course of space operations from a throwaway culture towards the ‘leave no trace’ paradigm of Space Environment Management that will enable the sustained growth of the commercial space economy.
Historically, U.S. research and development efforts in the third Element presented in the Plan, debris remediation, have been hamstrung by a lack of centralized coordination, unclear authorization of roles and responsibilities, and a failure to appropriate necessary resources. U.S. government investment in remediation technologies have proven rare, and, despite a clear scientific consensus of the urgency of the threat, political debate on responsibilities for remediation efforts still rages on.
Active management of the future of the space environment requires both the mitigation of orbital debris generation and the remediation of the existing debris population in the current environment. In other words, it’s not enough to try to stop the problem from getting worse in the future; U.S. action to improve the status quo must begin, before it’s too late.
As our comment details, this will require bold action. The U.S. Government should initiate a flagship U.S. government mission to remediate large debris objects. The R&D necessary to support such a flagship endeavor will have cross-cutting applications and positive impacts across government and commercial space activities. It will not only deliver us the tools to take true control of orbital environment safety, but concurrently generate visionary advancements in the on-orbit logistics and services infrastructure that will underpin the future of space operations.
In parallel with this flagship mission, our comment details that the U.S.’ implementation of the Plan should also prioritize research to develop economic models measuring the impact of the risks faced by operators in today’s congested orbital environment. To elucidate the stakes of what’s at risk, more clarity is needed on the value of a clean, safe operating environment that novel mitigation and remediation technologies can enable in space.
Last, we highlighted two other elements in the Plan that are critical for immediate implementation: the continuation of current R&D to minimize future debris generation through innovations to spacecraft and mission designs, and improvements to orbital debris population tracking, data processing, sharing, and integration of information. Together, mitigation and enhanced tracking are preventative measures that cannot be forgotten, even as urgent action to remediate debris is set in motion.
There is no benefit to a “carbon neutral” equivalent approach when managing the space environment – either we take control to make the problem better or it will continue to become more difficult, dangerous, and costly to operate in space.
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