Confronting Space Debris

Strategies and Warnings from Comparable Examples Including Deepwater Horizon

by Dave Baiocchi, William Welser IV


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Orbital debris represents a growing threat to the operation of man-made systems in space. There are currently hundreds of thousands of debris objects greater than one centimeter in diameter in Earth's orbit, and the collision of any one of these objects with an operational satellite would cause catastrophic failure of that satellite. The authors identified a set of comparable problems that share similarities with orbital debris and narrowed this set down to the following nine issues: acid rain, U.S. commercial airline security, asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, hazardous waste, oil spills, radon, email spam, and U.S. border control. This monograph provides context and insight for decisionmakers by asking the following questions: How have other industries approached their "orbital debris-like" risks? What lessons can be learned from these cases before proceeding with debris mitigation or remediation measures? Findings are drawn from practical examples that include the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the results of which emphasized that remedies must be designed and tested to work under the actual operating conditions.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction: The Problem of Orbital Debris

  • Chapter Two


  • Chapter Three

    Comparable Problems and Identifying Characteristics

  • Chapter Four


  • Chapter Five

    A Framework for Addressing Orbital Debris and the Comparable Problems

  • Chapter Six

    Analysis: Comparing the Timeline of Orbital Debris with the Timelines of the Comparable Problems

  • Chapter Seven

    Mitigation Strategies and Their Use in Other Communities

  • Chapter Eight

    Remedies and Their Use in Other Communities

  • Chapter Nine

    Summarizing Observations

  • Appendix A

    A Brief Overview of Orbital Debris and the Comparable Problems

  • Appendix B

    The Descriptive Framework Applied to Orbital Debris and the Comparables

The research described in this report was prepared for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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