Colorado professor: Let's tax rocket launches to reduce "space pollution"

As we await the scheduled launch of American astronauts in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule later today (hopefully), perhaps we should be considering some of the ramifications of all of these rockets being sent into orbit lately. They produce an awful lot of “space junk” that buzzes around the planet at high speeds in low Earth orbit. This has led some astrophysicists to describe that nearby region of space as “the solar system’s biggest junkyard.”

Rather than just bemoaning all of the untidiness, one professor at the University of Colorado has come up with a solution. Let’s just impose a tax on all rocket launches. This would supposedly incentivize the space industry to clean up their act and not produce all of this hazardous junk in our skies. Because there’s almost no problem the government can’t quickly address by creating more taxes or something. (CBS Denver)

A University of Colorado economist, Matthew Burgess, believes this additional risk should be offset by additional fees. These “orbital-use fees” would apply to every new satellite placed into orbit.

“We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators,” said Burgess.

Burgess co-authored a new study on the topic. It was published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He and the other researchers think the current solutions that involve mechanically removing the objects with nets, harpoons or lasers, or managing the de-orbiting of a satellite at the end of its use, don’t adequately solve the problem.

Rather than blithely poking fun at yet another member of academia who thinks all the world’s problems can be solved by raising taxes, we should first note that Burgess is discussing a very real and serious issue here. We have people constantly tracking more than 20,000 pieces of junk that are stuck in low orbit, and that’s just the ones that are ten centimeters long or more. When they wind up colliding with our spacecraft, the space station or our satellites, they can do incredible damage. Frankly, it’s amazing that nobody has been killed yet.

But the solution Burgess suggests doesn’t seem to have been thought through very well. First of all, one of the chief goals of the burgeoning space industry is to reduce the cost of access to space, not increase it. And even if you don’t care much about the cost, his proposal doesn’t move the ball significantly down the field in terms of cleaning up the junkyard. He hopes to produce an “incentive” for people launching objects into space to deorbit them at the end of their mission by making it too costly not to do so.

Such an approach would indeed cut down on future large objects (primarily dead satellites) joining the parade of things stuck in low Earth orbit. But it doesn’t do anything to reduce the amount of junk that is ejected off of vehicles on the way up or clean up the existing mess.

Another problem is that we can only tax companies that are conducting launches in America. There are currently more than a dozen countries sending up rockets and that number is growing every year. Yes, America contributes a lot to the junkpile, but not nearly all of it. This tax-based solution would be more of a bandaid than a real cure.

The only way this mess gets cleaned up is if all of the governments and private companies conducting launches voluntarily entered into an agreement to address the issue. They could start by developing and sharing designs that would shed fewer parts once they approach orbital altitude. There could also be an agreement for all vehicles to include an extra propulsion rocket to push the vehicle down toward the atmosphere when its mission is over.

But the biggest (and most expensive) project would need to be a joint venture to have some of these missions used to begin collecting some of the existing junk. Most of the pieces could be deorbited intentionally to burn up in the atmosphere. Any that are too large could have propulsion devices attached to them to send them away from the planet to (hopefully) eventually burn up in the sun. None of this would be quick and none of it would be cheap. But it’s clearly worth doing before a missing spanner wrench suddenly comes careening through the wall of the ISS and kills somebody.

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