RAND Review News for Spring 2011

A Catastrophe in the Deep Sea Can Help Avert One in Outer Space

If the international space community wants to lower the risks and effects of satellites colliding with space debris, it would do well to take lessons from oil giant BP’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, according to a recent RAND study. The study examined whether industry and government approaches to solving problems outside the aerospace industry hold clues for addressing the issue of space debris.

A growing amount of “space junk” has been clogging Earth’s orbit.

A growing amount of “space junk” — from expired launch vehicles, spent rockets that have exploded, and satellites that have collided or been deliberately destroyed — has been clogging Earth’s orbit ever since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Today, hundreds of thousands of objects larger than a centimeter in diameter clutter the orbital environment of satellites, and any of these objects is capable of causing a satellite to fail catastrophically. While the risk of collision is low, the effects would be highly disruptive, given the world’s reliance on satellites for communications, navigation, weather forecasting, imagery, and the like.

It may seem odd to turn to BP’s actions surrounding the Deepwater Horizon spill, the largest U.S. oil disaster, for guidance in reducing and mitigating space debris. But RAND trained an analytical eye on that disaster and on eight other analogous problems — acid rain, airline security, asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, e-mail spam, hazardous waste, radon, and U.S. border control — to uncover common characteristics and remedies that these seemingly disparate public policy challenges hold.

All these challenges involve situations in which society’s behavioral norms fail to prevent people from engaging in unwanted, problem-causing behavior. None of these challenges can be considered “solved,” because their root causes are very difficult to eliminate.

A Minotaur IV rocket carrying the first space-based space surveillance satellite blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and heads toward orbit.
AP IMAGES/U.S. AIR FORCE, ANDREW LEE
A Minotaur IV rocket carrying the first space-based space surveillance satellite blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and heads toward orbit on September 25, 2010. The satellite is designed to detect and to monitor debris and other space objects that could pose a threat to national security, communications, and weather satellites.

Nonetheless, the Deepwater Horizon event provides apt lessons. It occurred in an environment, like space, where it is difficult to assess the consequences of a catastrophe and where expensive, sensor-laden robots are required to clean up the collateral damage.

BP pursued a variety of remedies on the surface and at the wellhead, some successful, many not. Those responses suggest that effective solutions need to evolve as the problem develops and that tackling a catastrophic event often requires multiple remedies: some to clean up collateral damage, others to address the root cause.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the Deepwater Horizon spill is that remedies need to be designed and tested under actual operating conditions. The remedies BP fielded during the first 40 days of the spill were ineffective because they had not been tested or proven to work in an extreme deep-sea environment.

The Deepwater Horizon spill also suggests that technical remedies alone are not enough. Oil spills deep underwater belong to a set of problems that are not easily observed by those who cause them or who might be harmed by them. Orbital debris is in that same family.

“However, unlike oil spills where oily pelicans start to appear on the front pages of newspapers, it’s very difficult for most people to intuitively understand the hazards associated with this problem. For this, the space community needs improved methods for assessing and describing the risk posed by space debris,” said Dave Baiocchi, a RAND engineer who led this study along with coauthor William Welser. square

For more information:

Confronting Space Debris: Strategies and Warnings from Comparable Examples Including Deepwater Horizon, RAND/MG-1042-DARPA, ISBN 978-0-8330-5056-4, 2010.