Do We Need a Tax on Space Junk to Keep Gravity From Coming True?

How It Works
Oct. 8 2013 2:56 PM

Do We Need a Tax on Space Junk?

1764996
GRAPHIC - (CIRCA 1989): This National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) handout image shows a graphical representation of space debris in low Earth orbit.

Photo by NASA/Getty Images

The plot of the new film Gravity concerns astronauts who find themselves in peril after their shuttle is damaged by space debris. As economists Nodir Adilov, Peter Alexander, and Brendan Cunningham point out in a recent research paper, debris is a very real and growing problem.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

More than 21,000 pieces of junk over 4 inches and half a million larger than 10 cm currently orbit the planet. Debris left over from a 2007 Chinese missile test took out a Russian satellite earlier this year. Last year, the crew of the International Space Station had to shelter in escape capsules during the station's third near collision with space debris in 12 years.  

Advertisement

What makes the problem worse, as Adilov, Alexander, and Cunningham explain, is that “unlike standard terrestrial pollution, debris propagates additional pollution. Thus, for example, a collision between a satellite and a piece of debris, or even between two pieces of debris, creates additional debris which further increases the likelihood of other debris creating collisions.”

As far back as the 1970s, scientists have worried that space junk collisions could create a cascade of debris generation that could eventually render orbital space unusable.

The solution to the problem is fewer satellite launches combined with spending on technologies to minimize debris or remove it. (Such technologies have barely been developed.) The authors argue that voluntary guidelines to reduce debris will prove insufficient as more private companies and governments enter orbit.

”Competitive firms will generally choose the least-costly mitigation technology, which in turn generates the most debris, because it carries the lowest cost for the firm,” they write.

Their solution is a tax on satellite launches that “induces competitive firms to choose the socially optimal level of launches,” though they acknowledge that “the practical problem of getting various economic actors to agree to a launch tax is daunting, to say the least.”  

The European Union has put forward a non-binding Space Code of Conduct and there’s been some movement toward its adoption, a growing priority with more countries and firms launching objects into orbit. But I’m not hugely optimistic about any kind of binding treaty that includes an internationally-mandated space tax making it through the U.S. Congress any time soon.  

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 2:44 PM Where Do I Start With Mystery Science Theater 3000?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.