Scooping up space junk

Scientists at the Swiss Space Centre in Lausanne are developing a so-called “janitor satellite” designed to sweep up orbiting space junk that could prove a threat to operational satellites.

Called CleanSpace One, the 10 million franc prototype satellite will be designed to scoop up floating debris using extending arms, rather like a squid captures its prey. The scientists say that a major challenge will be developing a technology able to adjust the janitor satellite’s trajectory and speed to that of the debris to be collected.

Debris mitigation is key

The CleanSpace One initiative highlights the fact that debris is no longer an academic or environmental issue. On the contrary, it has the potential to damage or destroy high-value, operational satellites with resulting revenue losses running into billions of dollars.

Orbital debris poses two questions for insurers: What steps can they take to promote debris mitigation? And what measures may they need to adopt to protect the viability of their business lines if debris mitigation fails to keep collision risk at acceptable levels?

The amount of orbital debris today is double that of 20 years ago and over 30% higher than just five years ago. There are approximately 2,200 pieces of debris under one metre in length currently in geo-stationary orbit (GEO) around the earth. There is an explosion risk posed by nearly 200 spent rocket bodies in GEO.

Swiss Re a leader in space insurance

Satellite+orbiting+over+EarthOn 11 February 2009, the defunct Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite collided violently with an operational satellite in the Iridium constellation (Iridium-33).

Incidents such as the one described above have caused Swiss Re to examine the orbital debris risk more closely. Its findings are summarised in a publication entitled, Space debris: On collision course for insurers? A leader in the space insurance market, Swiss Re currently insures over 110 commercial satellites. The total insurance value for the market stands at approximately USD 20 billion.

Although the statistical probability of a collision remains comparatively low, projections are difficult to make because of our limited ability to observe objects in GEO and the associated uncertainty surrounding past and future debris-generating events in this sector. More importantly, the likelihood of a collision in GEO is increasing. This is because increasing numbers of satellites are being deployed in GEO and there is no natural debris removal mechanism.

A concerted approach is essential

In the case of collision, the fundamental issue of liability remains shrouded in legal uncertainty. Notwithstanding relevant treaties and debris mitigation standards, there are very few legal precedents either at an international or national level.

On their own, insurers cannot respond to the challenge space debris poses to their insured operators. The more logical and pragmatic approach is for insurers to work with insureds in, for example, promoting mitigation efforts. This could take the form of fostering a regime of legal certainty or collaborating with the scientific community to address this issue. The Swiss Re publication is a first attempt by one insurer to move in that direction.