Innovative NASA Solutions to Effectively Clean Up Space Debris

Innovative NASA Solutions to Effectively Clean Up Space Debris
Innovative NASA Solutions to Effectively Clean Up Space Debris

NASA’s new OTPS report identifies cost-effective methods for managing orbital debris, focusing on direct risk and cost assessments over 30 years. Credit:

New data analysis suggests that NASA and its partners may have discovered more cost-effective ways than previously thought to solve the growing orbital debris problem.

NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy has released a new report that provides agency leaders with new insight into how to measure the risks presented by orbital debris.

“Increasing activity in Earth’s orbit has brought us everything from faster terrestrial communications to a better understanding of our changing climate,” said Charity Weeden, who leads NASA’s OTPS. “These thriving opportunities are resulting in a more crowded space environment. This study is part of NASA’s work to rapidly improve our understanding of this environment, as outlined in NASA’s recently released Space Sustainability Strategy, by applying an economic perspective to this critical issue.

The report, Analysis of the Costs and Benefits of Mitigation, Monitoring, and Remediation of Orbital Debris, constitutes Phase 2 of OTPS’s work to address the technical and economic uncertainties associated with orbital debris.

Simulation of orbital debris around Earth demonstrating the population of objects in the geosynchronous region. Credit: NASA ODPO

Progress compared to previous reports

The OTPS Phase 1 report, released in 2023, provided the first insights for policymakers seeking cost-benefit analyzes of remedial measures for orbital debris, including moving, removing, or reusing objects. The new report improved the quality of estimates of the risks posed to spacecraft by orbital debris. These new estimates cover everything from the largest space debris to millimeter-sized fragments. The report also expands the scope of OTPS teams to include actions that can mitigate the creation of new debris and track existing debris.

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

Innovative approaches to measuring risk

The new OTPS report differs from previous studies on orbital debris in that it directly estimates the risk posed by space debris, instead of risk indicators like the number of pieces of debris in orbit. Additionally, it measures risk in dollars – modeling the costs operators would incur for maneuvering the spacecraft to avoid debris, for dealing with close approaches, and for damage or losses from debris impact. The study simulates the evolution of the orbital debris environment over 30 years.

Evaluating profitable strategies

In total, the study compares the cost-effectiveness of more than 10 different actions that can be taken to reduce the risk from orbital debris, such as shielding, tracking small debris, or remediating large debris. Ultimately, the team hopes to evaluate the profitability of combinations of different stocks, called 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 believes that some debris decontamination methods could be just as useful as debris mitigation. He also believes that rapid deorbiting of defunct spacecraft is a cost-effective method of risk reduction. Such findings could provide new considerations for NASA leaders and the space community when addressing the issue of orbital debris.

Future plans and public accessibility

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



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