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Launching a satellite? Watch out for space junk

Jon Gordon, Stephanie Hughes, and Shaheen Ainpour Apr 5, 2018
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A SpaceX rocket awaits launch in 2017 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There is a lot of junk in space. And there looks to be more coming as private companies send more satellites into low-Earth orbit. Last week, SpaceX got conditional approval from the Federal Communications Commission to launch more than 4,000 satellites. Marketplace Tech host Jon Gordon speaks with Marcia Smith, editor at SpacePolicyOnline.com, about what happens when all those satellites — new and old — eventually stop working. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Marcia Smith: So there are more and more satellites going up now. By and large, people are very responsible with their satellites these days. And so they’re designed with a finite lifetime so that they’ll be deorbited when they are no longer usable. But there’s a lot of stuff up there already that wasn’t designed in those days. And when you see some of these companies like SpaceX and they have a constellation that ultimately could be as many as 12,000 satellites, and OneWeb has constellations of 900 satellites, people do have to raise questions about space traffic management. Right now there is no such organization that manages it the way there is air traffic control. But there are a lot of people talking about the need for that sometime in the future.

Jon Gordon: Is space junk an issue that we should care about?

Smith: Well, to the extent that anybody is reliant on space services — and most of us are — whether it’s for communications in one form or another or for using GPS satellites, although they’re in an orbit right now which isn’t all that crowded with debris, we all rely on space services just about anywhere you are on the globe.

Gordon: We had an example recently where an electric car was shot into space. Are there any controls over what folks can put into space? 

Smith: In the United States, if you’re a private-sector entity, then you need to get a license from the FAA in order to launch something into space or to bring it back. And so SpaceX did need to get a license to launch the Tesla. 

Gordon: In the U.S, should we be looking to NASA for leadership on this?

Gordon: Well, NASA is not a regulatory agency. You’d probably be looking at some agency that does regulation, so a lot of people think of the FAA. The FAA right now regulates launches and re-entries, and some people see it as a natural place to do this kind of space traffic management someday. Right now the Air Force does what’s called “space situational awareness.” They’re tracking things in orbit, but they can’t require anybody to move it if it’s going to be in somebody’s way. And that has a whole lot of technical challenges with it as well.

Gordon: Is it theoretically possible to actually clean up space? To gather the junk in some way and bring it back down or at least contain it?

Smith: Well, there are very creative people who have come up with ways to deal with space junk. But there’s the technical challenge of how do you do it, and then there’s the economic challenge of how do you make it cost effective to do that? And then there are some very interesting policy questions as to what is “junk.” One person’s piece of junk is another person’s treasure.

Gordon: Can you give me an example of something that one group might think of as space junk but someone else would be pretty angry to see taken out of space because it was called space junk?

Smith: Well, I think any inactive satellite could be called junk, but sometimes satellites are inactive because the owner of it simply isn’t using it anymore. It’s not that they couldn’t use it if they wanted to. Sometimes you’ll have a satellite that’s pretty old, and you put up a new one so you don’t need to use the old one, but you’re sort of keeping it in reserve. But somebody else might consider that junk because you’re not actively using it.