Finding: The long-lived problem of growth in the orbital debris population as a result of debris self-collision and propagation requires that NASA take a long-term perspective to safeguard the space environment for future generations.
Finding: Although the meteoroid and orbital debris environment may be manageable at present, debris avoidance, mitigation, surveillance, tracking, and response all require money. At present, these costs usually come in the form of additional spacecraft mass and fuel and in the maintenance of debris surveillance systems. Such costs are usually absorbed in the budgets for space mission design, operations, and, in the case of commercial activities, insurance premiums. In the absence of appropriate meteoroid and orbital debris management to deal with the issue, these costs may grow over time. Although they can serve to highlight the importance of NASA’s debris measurement and monitoring activities, at present these costs are not routinely measured and reported.
Finding: The cost of replacing spacecraft has been used as a measure of the economic harm of a catastrophic debris impact but may underestimate the full cost of harm for two reasons: (1) actual replacement may be difficult because of funding, launch window limitations, or other constraints; and (2) replacement cost, insurance premiums, and other measures of the cost incurred to protect a spacecraft understate the full cost to society as a whole if that spacecraft, damaged by a meteoroid or orbital debris, itself generates debris that then creates potential harm to other spacecraft.
Recommendation: NASA should lead public discussion of the space debris problem to emphasize debris as a long-term concern for society that must continue to be addressed today. Necessary steps include improvements in long-term modeling, better measurements, more regular updates of the debris environment models, and other actions to better characterize the long-term evolution of the debris environment.
Recommendation: NASA should join with other agencies to develop and provide more explicit information about the costs of debris avoidance, mitigation, surveillance, and response. These costs should be inventoried and monitored over time to provide critical information for measuring and monitoring the economic impact of the meteoroid and orbital debris problem, signaling when mitigation guidelines may need revision, and helping to evaluate investments in technology for active debris removal.