The Economic History of the Solar System: The Regulation of Low Earth Orbit

The early periods of space exploration were characterized by a lack of cohesion. There were some joint ventures and agreements not to weaponize low earth orbit but in most cases, each nation followed it’s own path as far as space exploration went.

A growing problem caused by congestion in orbit changed this. At the close of the twentieth century there were over two thousand satellites in orbit. Within twenty years the number had doubled. Once debris and discarded boosters were taken into account, there were over half a million objects larger than a centimeter orbiting the Earth. None of these orbits were stable but, for many of the objects, the decay could take decades if not centuries. For the people of the day, space was congested and it was only going to get more so.

In 2009, the first accidental collision between satellites occurred when Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251 collided. The space exploration community lived in fear of the Kessler Effect, the situation where debris from one collision hits another satellite generating a cascade effect until the amount of debris renders low Earth orbit unusable. In 2020, a small cascade that eliminated seven satellites over several weeks made the world take notice of this growing problem. The main space faring nations agreed that something needed to be done and the next two years were spent as the various nations jockeyed for position on who should pay. The newer space faring nations argued that costs should be apportioned according to the number of satellites in orbit. For Russia and the U.S., this represented a massive financial burden for satellites that were effectively dead. These countries used their veto to block those proposals and countered that each new launch should contribute to the clean up fund on the grounds that these were the satellites requiring a clear orbital path. In short, Russia and the U.S. argued that, if you needed a space, you should pay for it.

In 2022, a second cascade occurred taking out another five satellites. Orbital mechanics wasn’t going to wait for Earth bound politicians to come to an agreement. In a hurried session a compromise was worked out that Russia and the U.S. would contribute seed funding but a levy was to be imposed on all launches above the Kármán line with the clean up effort being launched from Russian or U.S. facilities. Once agreed, the new rules were strictly enforced as it was to the advantage of the major powers to limit those smaller countries looking to develop ballistic missile capability.

This provided the funds for the clean up and an available source of funds created the incentives required for commercial operators to develop the technology to deal with the mess in orbit. For all the visions of landing on Mars or mining asteroids, the first commercial ventures in space itself was to be the messy business of dealing with the garbage circling the Earth.

This wasn’t to be the end of regulation but it provided the foundation that was used from that point onward.

This post is part of The Economic History of the Solar System. The background for this series can be found here.

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