NASA’s Innovative Solutions for Efficient Space Debris Cleanup

Concept art of space junk

NASA’s new OTPS report identifies cost-effective methods for managing orbital debris, highlighting direct risk and cost estimates over 30 years. Credit:

New data analysis suggests that NASA and its partners may have discovered more cost-effective ways to deal with the growing issue of orbital debris than previously believed.

NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy has released a new report that provides agency leadership with important new insights into how to measure the risks posed by orbital debris.

“Increased activity in Earth’s orbit has brought us everything from faster terrestrial communications to a better understanding of our changing climate,” said Charity Weeden, who heads NASA’s OTPS. “These booming opportunities are resulting in a more crowded space environment. This study is part of NASA’s work to rapidly improve our understanding of that environment, as outlined in NASA’s recently released Space Sustainability Strategy, by applying an economic lens to this critical issue.

The report, Cost-Benefit Analysis of Orbital Debris Mitigation, Tracking, and Remediation, is Phase 2 of OTPS’ work to address the technical and economic uncertainties associated with orbital debris.

Orbital space debris simulation

Simulation of orbital debris around Earth demonstrating the object population in the geosynchronous region. Credit: NASA ODPO

Advances from previous reports

The OTPS Phase 1 report, released in 2023, provided initial information for policymakers seeking cost-benefit analyzes of remediation measures for orbital debris, including moving, removing, or reusing objects. The new report has improved the quality of assessments of the risks posed to the spacecraft by orbital debris. These new estimates cover everything from the largest debris in space to millimeter-sized fragments. The report also broadens the focus of OTPS teams to include actions that can mitigate the creation of new waste and track existing waste.

“This study allows us to begin to answer the question: What are the most cost-effective actions we can take to address the growing problem of orbital debris?” said NASA analyst Jericho Locke, lead author of the report. “By measuring everything in dollars, we can directly compare the defense vessel to tracking smaller debris or removing 50 large pieces of debris to removing 50,000 smaller ones.”

Innovative approach to risk measurement

The new OTPS report differs from previous orbital debris studies in that it directly assesses the risk posed by space debris, rather than risk proxies such as the number of pieces of debris in orbit. Additionally, it measures risks in dollars—modeling the costs operators would incur from maneuvering the spacecraft to avoid debris, from handling close approaches, and from damage or loss due to debris impact. The study simulates how the orbital debris environment will evolve over 30 years.

Evaluating Cost-Effective Strategies

In total, the study compares the cost-effectiveness of more than 10 different actions that could be taken to reduce the risk from orbital debris, such as shielding, tracking small debris, or remediating large debris. Eventually, the team hopes to assess the cost-effectiveness of combinations of different actions, known as portfolios.

The report’s analysis reexamines the conventional wisdom that the space community has historically considered cost-effective methods for supporting space sustainability. For example, the report estimates that some waste remediation methods may be as valuable as waste mitigation. He also believes that quickly removing the missing spacecraft is a cost-effective method of reducing risk. Such findings may provide new considerations for NASA leaders and the space community when approaching the issue of orbital debris.

Future plans and public accessibility

OTPS plans to publicly release the research code used to produce the study. The research team plans to continue its work to understand orbital debris and different approaches to it, and will work to share its knowledge with stakeholders.

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