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Could taking down zombie satellites be as lucrative as launching them?

Tim Fernholz

The European Space Agency’s conference on space junk, which just wrapped up in Germany, brought news both bad and good for the space industry.

The bad news: The $100 billion worth of satellites orbiting earth are in more danger than ever from space junk. The good news: There could be a business in cleaning up orbit paths for a fee.

At present, only 7% of the objects in earth’s orbit monitored by earth’s space agencies are functioning satellites. The remaining 93% of them—broken satellites, space rocks and satellite parts—represent a threat to working spacecraft. And even relatively small pieces of debris can damage satellites when they are moving at 15,000 mph.

The ESA says that as it stands, in-orbit collisions will happen once every five years. That might not sound like a lot, but satellites cost millions and are designed to last for decades. Unexpected failures like the ones troubling American weather satellites could have expensive consequences. (For a glimpse of what a collision looks like, watch this video about space debris, which I recommend if only for the action-film soundtrack to the 2009 collision of a private Iridium communications satellite and a Russian military satellite.)

But there’s a bigger problem. Each time a collision occurs, the satellites involve break up into many more pieces, increasing the threat of collision to working orbiters.

Already, two-thirds of the space junk currently orbiting earth comes from past crashes, but that percentage is likely to grow. To avoid what’s called the “Kessler syndrome”—a cascade of crashes triggered by multiplying debris—the ESA officials say 5-10 large objects need to be pulled from space each year.

The ESA is urging a global effort on the part of space agencies and private companies to address the problem. As part of its Clean Space initiative, the ESA is developing technology to do just that, ranging from “tractor beams” to suicide satellites designed to go up and bring broken satellites down to a fiery (and safe) death in earth’s atmosphere.

An idea for a satellite that kills other satellites. Reminiscent of Drax Industries.

But meeting the yearly target will also require the private sector, ESA officials said. Already in the United States, NASA relies on SpaceX to handle its resupply missions to the International Space Station. For companies like Planetary Resources looking to make a go of asteroid mining, another line of business being explored by the extra-terrestrial sector, pulling down satellites for pay might be an easier lift and a good way to demonstrate its technology.

There’s also a legal concern: Private companies are technically responsible for their defunct satellites and other space trash that might create. Companies that maintain satellite constellations could have a liability incentive, as well as a practical one, to aid in the clean-up. But first, new space laws may need to be written too allow for the salvage of defunct orbiters, the way laws currently regulate derelict craft on the high seas.

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