Monday, February 16, 2009

Space Debris: A Threat to Space Commerce?

Will space commerce become more costly due to the high-profile collision of an American telecommunications satellite with an inactive Russian Cosmos military satellite back in February 10, 2009?

By: Vanessa Uy

Given that the recent on-going conversion of a former RAF airbase in Moray into the world’s first commercial spaceport means that humanity is now poised for a large-scale commercialization of space. Especially when it comes to space tourism. But after that recent high-profile collision of an American commercial telecommunications satellite with an inactive Russian Cosmos military satellite when both apparently tried to cross the same orbit window at the same time created an additional 600 or so pieces of space debris. Will this make future commercial civilian space ventures more costly, given that insurance premiums for satellites and other space-based assets need to be restructured (usually more expensive) due to the increased risks?

At orbital speeds of 17,380 miles per hour, every piece of space debris will be hitting spacecraft and satellites with the force comparable to that of an exploding fragmentation grenade. During the Reagan Administration, NASA policymakers proposed to prospective commercial satellite owners to harden – i.e. use armor plating – to their satellites as a protection against space debris. Though the proposal was swiftly abandoned when the weight burden incurred by the armor plating necessitates a more powerful rocket – hence a more expensive rocket - to launch them. Given at the time that the Russian Energia rocket – which became the world’s most powerful rocket / launch system in the 1990’s - was probably still in the planning stage.

As space tourism will probably become space commerce leading “cash cow” in a few years time, the threat posed by orbital debris cannot be easily overlooked. Especially if you want repeat customers who are willing to pay serious money just to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Errant space debris breaching a hole in your space-bound tour bus can really give your clients a very bad day. Using Victor Szebehely’s celestial mechanics calculations to predict orbital debris path is no walk in the park either. While NORAD ’s RADAR system can only “see” certain sized objects. Smaller ones can still hit a space-bound tour bus with a force of a hand grenade.

While research studies modeling the behavior of space debris and their associated risk had been very helpful in providing data to make insurance products especially tailored for space commerce. After reading Space Debris: Models and Risk Analysis by Heiner Klinkrad, academic research such as these can be very helpful to those who want to know how insurance providers use risk assessment data in crating equitable insurance clauses intended for multi-million dollar space-based assets.

The resulting orbital debris produced by the recent satellite collision already endanger the long-term future of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station whose structural hardware are not design to cope with debris packing energies similar to that of an exploding hand grenade. Even though future space-based assets are certainly insured, the monetary compensations are more often than not after-the-fact Band-Aids, rather than pro-active evasive procedures. Like the warnings / advisories provided by NORAD on incoming debris “seen” by their RADAR.