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Michael Listner, Monday, 5-6-13 May 6, 2013

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Michael Listner, Monday, 5-6-13


Guest:  Michael Listner.  Topics:  Space debris issues and ideas for solutions.  Please direct all comments and questions regarding Space Show programs/guest(s) to the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com. Comments and questions should be relevant to the specific Space Show program. Written Transcripts of Space Show programs are a violation of our copyright and are not permitted without prior written consent, even if for your own use. We do not permit the commercial use of Space Show programs or any part thereof, nor do we permit editing, YouTube clips, or clips placed on other private channels & websites. Space Show programs can be quoted, but the quote must be cited or referenced using the proper citation format. Contact The Space Show for further information.

We welcomed Michael Listner back to the program to discuss space debris and Apollo artifact issues along with his ideas for possible solutions to the debris problem.  On The Space Show blog, you will find three of Michael’s Space Review articles on the subject plus his Power Point slide presentation at the end of the blog summary statement.  In addition, Michael had an article in the current Space Review on the preservation of Apollo historic sites. For this article, see www.thespacereview.com/article/2290/1.  In the first segment of our 1 hour 44 minute show, Michael offered us his definition of space debris and pointed us to his slides which I urge you to have available when listening to this show. Again, his slide presentation is uploaded to the blog for this program and is the last item of the uploads.  He summarized the space debris issue as both legal and thorny!  After defining debris and the issues using the first few of his slides, he talked about other issues including ITAR, property rights, technical, and even national security issues.  Listeners asked him several questions, mostly focused on LEO as that is the most crowded region at this time and the priority for debris mitigation.  CubeSat issues came up given the potential debris problem should the cubesats manifest in the quantity talked about and planned.  We talked policy issues and different strategies as suggested by China and Russia.  We also talked about weapons issues and dual use for the military as well as for civilian use.  Michael went over Transparency Confidence Measures (TCMs) instead of new treaties and mentioned the proposed Russian/Chinese treaty, PPWT, which does not have wide support in the UN.  Late in the segment, Michael talked about the OST and the definition of a space object. We also talked about space salvage compared to ocean salvage. He told us to check out Project Azorian www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb305) (but did not tell us what this was.

In our second segment, Michael wanted to focus on solutions & he offered us some of his ideas on the subject. Still referring to his PPT slides.  One suggestion was to offer limited liability to third parties or those working to mitigate a debris issue, similar to what many of the commercial spaceports are doing with the suborbital spaceship companies and manufacturers.  He talked quite a bit about the proposed Swiss concept for debris mitigation which he liked very much. Michael wrote another Space Review article on this concept last year which you can read at http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2032/1.  Toward the end of the program, we talked about the need to preserve the Apollo landing sites as historical sites and some of the issues and challenged faced in doing so.

Please post your comments/questions on The Space Show blog. Michael can also be contacted at michael.listner at spacesafetymagazine dot com.

Legal issues surrounding space debris remediation

Addressing the challenges of space debris, part 1: defining space debris

Addressing the challenges of space debris, part 2: liability

Addressing the challenges of space debris, part 3: policy




1. Doug Worrall - May 14, 2013

Hi Michael,
Thanks for your reply. Yes, perhaps the Spanish Galleon would have been a better example given the Titanic got arrested!

Examples and analogies aside, the point is that these bits of junk should be considered “hazards to navigation” and therefore treated differently to missing property. They are not sitting harmlessly under 3000 feet of water.

Okay… I can’t help it… one more analogy: Space debris is litter but, because of its kinetic energy, we are not talking candy wrappers. We are talking hand grenades.

Should we leave hand grenades lying around the school playground because they belong to somebody else?

If the law insists that we do then the law needs changing. The nice thing is, it is the kind of law we CAN change; those deadly pieces of metal orbiting our planet are obeying other laws and care little for legal niceties!

Thanks for your conversation, very interesting.

Michael Listner - May 16, 2013

Changing the law is not as easy as you think. It took ten years from the launch of Sputnik to get the first formal treaty in 1967, which creates the rule about the ownership of space object. This treaty allows amendment, but there is little impetus among the major space-faring nations to amend them nor is there a desire for more formal international space law.

2. Doug Worrall - May 13, 2013

Michael discussed maritime law as analogous to space in terms of salvage, removal etc. At first that seemed to make sense to me however, upon reflection, I do not think these issues are the same. Here’s the thing…

A piece of space junk is NOT sitting in a fixed location, rather it is in motion presenting a hazard to others.

Let me paint an alternative to the Michael’s maritime analogy… imagine one or more countries developed solar powered unmanned drone aircraft which worked for awhile but then stopped responding to the commands of their owners. These drone aircraft will, essentially stay up in the air forever, and will wander through international airspace, thereby presenting a collision risk to other air traffic.

Should this drone aircraft be considered the sovereign property of the Government that launched it and therefore left alone, despite the havoc and potential loss of life it could cause? Or, rather, should it be viewed as a “hazard to navigation” and therefore be justifiably removed/destroyed by anyone who sees fit?

Space debris is NOT like the Titanic… a sunken ship is no hazard to anyone, but a rogue flying chunk of metal moving at 17,000 miles per hour through the same space as commercial/manned traffic is a completely different kettle of fish. Heaven help us if lawyers make it impossible to remove these hazards!

(DOUG’S RULE: The owner of this piece of junk has 10 years to remove it, or we — the international community — will remove it for you. You may be sent a bill for this service!)


Doug Worrall


Michael Listner - May 14, 2013

First, if you go back and listen I was distinguishing the maritime concept of salvage with outer space objects in that there is no right of salvage under international space law. Therefore, your analogy of space debris to the Titanic is correct for the wrong reasons. They are not alike because the Titanic is subject to the maritime principle of salvage while space objects/space debris is not. If for arguments sake the Titanic was in orbit then it would be considered a space object and not subject to salvage. Notably there the discussion of creating a “right of salvage” for outer space objects. This is thrown around a lot in academic circles, but it is unlikely anything will come of it. Moreover, the lawyers who “make it difficult to remove those objects” made it possible for those space objects to be placed into orbit to begin with. I would further suggest that the same rules that make it difficult to remove those object also discourage other parties from interfering with functioning space objects, including communications satellites, GPS satellites and a host of other space objects that provide valuable national security and civilian services.

Second, your drone analogy is not accurate since space objects transit through a soveriegnless region while the drone in your example is flying in sovereign airspace. Customary international law starting with Sputnik recognizes that space objects belonging to any nation have free access to outer space, including the space over a foreign national. This gets into the debate where the atmosphere ends (and where nations can claim sovereignty) and where soverignless outer space begins. This is still an issue, but for practical purposes the region where space objects/space debris reside in orbit is unarguably outer space.

Third, your Rule is laudable, but it doesn’t solve the legal and policy issues I identified for existing space debris. There are mitigation procedures that can be taken before the end of life of a space object, such as lowering its orbit or placing it an orbit that is not frequently used. The space debris mitigation guidelines mandate that a space object de-orbit within 25 years; however, there has been a push among stake-holders, including satellite operators to exceed the mitigation guidelines. Moreover, for LEO, there are strategies for de-orbiting a satellite, rocket body, etc in shorter time-frames, but that invariably adds cost to the launch of the space object and can lessen its useful life. Therefore, it makes the overall operation of the spacecraft more expensive.

3. Dwayne - May 13, 2013

I agree with Michael that there seems to be this great enthusiasm to come up with technical solutions and ignore the policy and legal issues. That’s a complaint that I make into the wind about a lot of space discussions. But it’s just the nature of the space field where everybody wants to be a rocket scientist and imagine neat spaceships even if they don’t have any training in aerospace engineering. How many people touting the benefits of ISRU or fuel depots have ever done any work on those technologies?

One other thing: it sounds like somebody is chewing at 21:30-21:40.

Michael Listner - May 14, 2013

Not many I would gather and I would venture to say that the technical end of space debris removal isn’t going to be easy by a long shot. The engineering and removal methodologies that crop up on a weekly basis are fascinating and have more sex appeal than the legal and policy issues, but despite the level of certainty of success among proponents removal techniques is going to be a lot about trial and error with a lot of emphasis on the error.

Dwayne Day - May 15, 2013

To add to what you say, I think there’s an issue that most of the people who get hyped about this ignore, which is that in order to be useful, any removal technology has to be able to remove a substantial amount of debris at relatively low cost. It’s not hard to come up with something that could work on a single piece of debris. If your goal is to remove something like a junk rocket stage, a maneuvering spacecraft capable of grabbing it (or spearing it!) and then applying a little thrust should be doable today. But that’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and removing a single piece of debris is pointless.

So beyond the initial technical issue is the cost/benefit trade of any technology. It doesn’t simply have to work, it has to work at low enough cost and high enough effectiveness to make sense. That’s not just technology, it’s modeling of debris and mission costs.

Michael Listner - May 15, 2013

Agreed Dwayne. More bothersome is that people hype commercial space as the do all and end all for the space debris issue; however, for commercial space to agree to even consider it there has to be a profit motive. The only two sources of potential profit come from a government contract or some tangible income from the retrieval of space debris and recycling it. The second option being the more expensive of the two. I am a big supporter of commercial space, but people wave it around like a magic wand to solve all space-related issues.

4. Space-for-All at HobbySpace » The Space Show this week - May 6, 2013

[…] [ Update: Presentation files in support of Mr. Listner's discussion of space debris: Michael Listner, Monday, 5-6-13 –  Thespaceshow's Blog.] […]

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