Fees against junk?

One of the negative externalities of the space age, is the debris resulting from abandoned satellites. Currently there about 128 million pieces of old spacecrafts floating around, pieces that are up to 10 cm in size. Though this does not seem threatening, the kinetic energy of these parts is so high, they can destroy operational satellites.

Just imagine that a GPS or Galileo satellite is struck and consequently seriously damages. This would seriously affect global navigation and hence will have serious economic consequences due to the disruption of global trade. Or suppose you are in a remote part of the world and your satellite phone just stops working…

Economist Matthew Burgess has proposed the introduction of a use fee for orbital satellites. He explains:

“Space is a common resource, but companies aren’t accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch…” (ScienceDaily, consulted at August 9, 2020).

And in regard of technological measures, the authors argue:

Ultimately, engineering or managerial solutions like these won’t solve the debris problem because they don’t change the incentives for operators.

In short by cleaning up space debris, people will only launch more satellites into orbit. Of course, the question is who will pay for this clean up? This is also an issue with the “plastic soup” that floats in our planet’s ocean.

Therefore Burgess and his co-authors believes that annual fee of about 235,000 USD is needed. They argue that the value of cleaner orbits will rise, after all the risk posed to operational satellites is smaller if there is less debris floating around.

The idea of orbital use fees is consistent with the Georgist or Geoist school of economics, we sympathize with on this site. According to this school of thought all land should be the common property of all of mankind and individuals should pay a periodic lease to the community for using a specific plot of land.

Orbital slots are considered “land” in the Georgist sense, even though these are not part of the surface of the Earth. And hence are a common resource for which users owe a fee to the community.

Unfortunately the ScienceDaily report does not go into the implementation of the proposed scheme. So we are left with some questions:

  • who will be charged with collecting these fees?
  • what will happen to satellites, which owners default on their fees?
  • what will happen with existing debris?
  • what shall we do with the revenues raised this way?

One possibility would be the establishment of the International Space Orbit Board. This agency would collect these fees and use this revenue to actually clean up all space debris. It will also have to authority to remove satellites from orbit, if their owners refuse to pay the due fees.

Of course, this suggestion will raise even more questions and since this is essentially a political question, related to the militarization of outer space, we will stop here. At least for now.

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