Special Report: A tragedy of the commons
The cost of entry into space is dropping rapidly and significantly. Technologies – including advanced propellants; newer, lighter materials; smaller electronics; more efficient batteries and solar arrays – and their ubiquity have all led to improved payload fractions, cheaper and more frequent launches, and longer mission lifetimes.
Further, there are now approximately a dozen countries capable of launching assets into space, and an increasing number of private companies are joining this direct-orbit-access group. At the Space Technology and Investment Forum held in San Francisco in August, launch was consistently raised as the single greatest barrier for the so-called newspace businesses to succeed – however, this barrier increasingly has more to do with timing and logistics than cost.
From a new company launch perspective, it is clear that investors and entrepreneurs want to let Someone Else invest in space hardware and infrastructure – much like what has happened with ATMs and the internet.
Prevailing wisdom suggests that the real money is in the data and applications which will run on, or be derived from, that “let someone else pay for it” infrastructure. In other words, the hardware in space is perceived to be mostly an extension of the Internet, where venture capitalists have already cut their teeth and are comfortable investing.
Building on this received knowledge, and the lessons learned during the dotcom bubble, newspace investors are insisting on line-of-sight – typically five-year – exit strategies for their investments.
Unfortunately, newspace business plans and investments appear to be accommodating a lack of both understanding and appreciation for many of the real risks in space.
Even government and military operators have this blind spot, because these risks are of the low-likelihood-but-catastrophic-impact variety. Space is not merely like the Internet was circa Y2K, when we were all waiting for that “killer app” to drive commerce and profitability – it is a chaotic environment replete with risks that are unknown unknowns.
When the data that your company sells goes dark, and customers lose faith in your product(s), wouldn’t you like to be able to attribute cause? Better yet, wouldn’t you like to be able to predict the likelihood of loss, disruption, or degradation of your space services and capabilities? Perhaps even have meaningful courses of action prescribed in a timely and actionable fashion? How about the ability to credibly quantify the risk of this for your customers or insurers?
The inconvenient truth is that scientists, engineers, and policy-makers are still struggling to understand the physical space environment and its effects and impacts on space objects.
Our models for this presently make gross, perhaps even detrimentally flawed, assumptions about these effects and impacts. For example, orbit determination algorithms model all space objects as spheres – manifestly untrue, but the math is easier – while on-orbit collisions are modeled using the kinetic theory of gases; which, among other idealisms, assumes collisions are elastic and do not cause breakups.
The consequence of this ignorance and imprecision is that our errors increase in both the inference of events that affect space assets and our ability to predict how objects in space are likely to behave. Understand: there is never a definitive prediction for a conjunction in space. Collision avoidance decisions are based on probabilistic analysis and institutional risk tolerance.
As we have pointed out elsewhere, there is no organisation anywhere with the authority to mandate collision avoidance maneuvers for anyone. There is no organisation today chartered with comprehensively quantifying and assessing which countries (or companies) are following which guidelines for space debris mitigation. Nor is any organisation assessing the utility of these guidelines (are they doing what we intended them to do?). There is no organisation generating or aggregating the scientific knowledge required to inform space law, policy, or how space insurance companies underwrite policies for assets or services in space. There is no organisation or consortium working on establishing a holistic educational, training, and workforce development program for the global community to address these challenges.
As a consequence, we face a Tragedy of the Commons in space: as the cost of orbital access decreases, more actors participate and compete in the same “common”. If space hardware is placed on-orbit independently according to economic and/or geopolitical self-interest, operators behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their unmanaged collective action.
In this case, resource depletion will translate into orbital regions at risk of becoming unusable with a preponderance of orbital debris and activity. This scenario needs to be prevented: orbital debris and space traffic management need to be addressed with the prime directive of maintaining the long-term sustainability of space activities for everyone. Launch access is irrelevant if there’s nowhere to go.
To illustrate this point, a plot of the current trackable space object population (see chart) quickly reveals clusters of where space objects reside. Space object clusters manifest as a function of each satellite’s or constellation’s mission and purpose. This is why weather satellites are typically found in LEO, GSP satellites are in MEO, and communications satellites are in GEO. These mission/purpose-optimal orbital habitats are like Goldilocks – that is, just right! However, less than 5% of all space traffic have any ability to maneuver, meaning these optimal habitats are largely populated by defunct satellites and debris.
Yet another complication is the fact that this is an international arena, and an international opportunity. Besides the ~12 countries with launch capability, there are over 60 other countries with assets or dependent services already on orbit today. And there are US competitors who have tremendous financial resources, about as much concern for the space environment and its sustainability as many investors, and far less concern with line-of-sight profitability compared with their extremely strong interest and motivation to get to (and operate freely in) space.
A primary concern of any business is how to retire risk. However, the behavior of objects in space conceal risks that are nowhere near retirement. Investors and entrepreneurs want to assume that the underlying infrastructure is going to work with the same uptime and availability as terrestrial infrastructures. If this were realistic, an investment strategy focused on data and other derived products with a five-year payoff would make more sense.
But space is a fragile and hazardous operational environment, a place where one careless or bad actor can impair or even destroy space-based services and impact users of those space services on Earth. Even worse, no one is economically incented to behave responsibly in space – at least, not over the short term. The tragedy of the commons in space is simply someone else’s problem.
There is still an opportunity to get out in front of these risks so they can be “retired”, but it is going to take a different approach than treating the hardware in space like the hardware on the ground. If this willfully ignorant approach to newspace investing persists, the US stands to lose not just missed investment opportunities, but nothing less than its (commercial, at least) pre-eminence in space.