Why space capitalism will eat itself

Nation states are no longer the driving force behind the next space race. Money is

There is a seemingly minor administrative change in the new American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. Passed unanimously by the US House of Representatives in April, and a key talking point at a recent Secure World Foundation conference on space sustainability held in Washington DC, the new Act gives the commerce department, and not the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsibility for space traffic management issues.

US vice president Mike Pence has reportedly said it is intended to relieve the defence department the burden of providing potential collision warnings to the growing number of satellite operators. Still why not let the FAA take care of it?

Most of the innovation in this new era for space exploration is happening thanks to private enterprise. In the absence of a Cold War, nation states – while still very active – are no longer the driving force behind the next space race. Money is.

Which is great because when it comes to exploring space the end justifies the means. But now we must deal with the fallout from turning our galaxy into another market.


Wild West

It would be trite to compare the commercial space sector to the American Wild West. But with no one policing the burgeoning industry, businesses operate untethered in a market where there are no rules and no open channels of communication. It means satellites are launched unchecked every day by anyone – from the amateur enthusiast in her back garden to major international space co-operatives.

It’s nearly impossible to know what’s really going on up there. US officials believe there are about half a million man-made objects floating around in orbit. But that’s about as specific as they can get. Not very scientific.

The only thing more predictable than tired Wild West analogies is the human species itself. We are a predictable bunch, prone to making the same mistakes over and over. As such, we enter a new era where space pollution is an issue.

What could be a more iconic symbol of our wretched love for creating waste than flying devices designed never to return?

Earlier this year, India broke all previous records by launching 104 satellites at once into orbit. Cool. Except those 104 satellites are destined to become 104 (or more) pieces of trash floating around in space.

That’s right. Satellite technology, in its current state, is the new “lightbulb” of planned obsolescence. What could be a more iconic symbol of our wretched love for creating waste than flying devices designed never to return? When a satellite’s mission is complete, or it malfunctions, it’s gone. Girl, bye.

“Space junk” makes up a significant proportion of the guesstimated 500,000 plus objects floating around in orbit. About 23,000 of these objects are currently being tracked and maintained by the US Strategic Command. These so-called resident space objects are either satellites still in use or are known objects no longer fit for purpose. They could be as small as a tennis ball or the size of a double decker bus. In addition, however, there are hundreds of thousands of other objects – bolts, exploded satellite pieces, large rockets and other space debris – that are unaccounted for.

Efforts have been made to try to consolidate public with private data on what is up there but, for various reasons, the space community does not openly share information on where all objects are located.

Lack of regulation

For the entrepreneurially inclined, it is probably not that surprising to hear many are taking advantage of the severe lack of regulation in space. Sure why wouldn’t you? Moreover why would anyone publicly disclose how and where their interests lie in a given market, intergalactic or otherwise, if they weren’t obliged to?

But space isn’t just another market. Thinking one can apply the same rules up there as we use on earth is shortsighted for so many reasons.

Down here the economic “unknowns” are known. Space is replete with unknown unknowns. If a satellite that is used to collect data to sell on to business customers one day stops sending data, and you haven’t the foggiest notion why, what do you tell the customers? How do you attribute cause? How does a company predict the likelihood of loss or damage to its equipment in space or perform other prudent exercises before getting into the space game?

One of the chief concerns for any new business is risk and how to mitigate it. There couldn’t be a much riskier bet than entering a market with no regulation, patchy knowledge of your competitors’ location or size, and to top it all off, little understanding of the physical environment within which the business will operate.

Until everyone is economically incentivised to behave responsibly in space, the chaos will continue. With aplomb. It won’t last forever though. The current lack of regulation is, in itself, the mother of all gaps in the biggest market civilization may ever exploit. And the Trump administration is the first to corner it. Suddenly the decision to give responsibility for space traffic management issues to the commerce department, and not the FAA, begins to make sense.