NASA Study Offers New Look at Orbital Debris, Possible Solutions – NASA

Simulation of orbital debris around Earth demonstrating the object population in the geosynchronous region.

New data analysis indicates that NASA and its partners could have more cost-effective methods to tackle the growing problem of orbital debris than previously thought.

A new report from NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy provides the agency’s leadership with new insights into how to measure the risks posed by orbital debris.

“Growing activity in Earth’s orbit has brought us everything from faster terrestrial communications to a better understanding of our changing climate,” said Charity Weeden, head of NASA’s OTPS. “These blossoming capabilities result in a busier space environment. This study is part of NASA’s work to rapidly improve our understanding of that environment, as outlined in NASA’s recently released Space Sustainability Strategy, by applying an economic lens to this critical problem.”

The report, Cost and Benefit Analysis of Mitigating, Tracking, and Remediating Orbital Debris, is Phase 2 of OTPS’s work to address the technical and economic uncertainties associated with orbital debris.

The OTPS Phase 1 report, released in 2023, provided initial information for policymakers seeking cost-benefit analyzes of orbital debris remediation measures, including moving, removing or reusing objects. The new report has improved the quality of estimates of the risks posed by orbital debris to spacecraft. These new estimates cover everything from the largest debris in space to millimeter-sized fragments. The report also expands the focus of OTPS teams to include actions that can reduce the formation of new debris and identify existing debris.

“This study allows us to answer the question: What are the most cost-effective actions we can take to address the growing problem of orbital debris?” said NASA analyst Jericho Locke, the lead author of the report. “By measuring everything in dollars, we can directly compare shielding spacecraft with detecting smaller debris, or removing 50 large pieces of debris with removing 50,000 smaller ones.”

The new OTPS report differs from previous studies of space debris in that it provides a direct estimate of the risk posed by space debris, rather than risk measures such as the number of pieces of debris in orbit. Additionally, it measures risk in dollars, modeling the costs operators would incur when maneuvering spacecraft to avoid debris, dealing with close approaches, and damage or loss from debris impact. The study simulates how the orbital debris environment will evolve in 30 years.

In total, the study compares the cost-effectiveness of more than ten different actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of orbital debris, such as shielding, detecting small debris or remediating large debris. Ultimately, the team hopes to assess the cost-effectiveness of combinations of different actions, known as portfolios.

The report’s analysis reexamines common wisdom actions that the space community has historically considered cost-effective methods to support space sustainability. For example, the report estimates that some debris removal methods could be just as valuable as debris mitigation. It also estimates that quickly decommissioning defunct spacecraft is a cost-effective method of reducing risk. Such findings could provide new considerations for NASA leaders and the space community as they approach the issue of orbital debris.

OTPS plans to make public the research code used to produce the study. The research team plans to continue its work in understanding orbital debris and its different approaches, and will work to share its knowledge with stakeholders.

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