Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Space waste – A tragedy of the cosmic commons

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 15, 2008

Yesterday the Bush administration ordered the military to attempt to shoot down a crippled spy satellite in the next two weeks. While the administration says that it needs to destroy the satellite in order to “prevent any possible contamination from the hazardous rocket fuel on board”, I think it’s clear to all that this is action is a direct response to China’s similar act a year ago. Ignoring all the disingenousness of the justificaton (as if Bush cares about the environment) and the ridiculousness of the missile defense program (Reagan literally dreamed it up after watching Star Wars), there is an interesting economics component to the this story.

Standard procedure for removing unwanted or obsolete satellites from space involves taking them out of orbit and letting them disintegrate in the heat of the atmosphere. This results in essentially no remaining debris. China, for reasons we can only guess at, decided to ignore this protocol when it shot it’s satellite down last January. This resulted in an explosion of debris which is currently racing around the Earth at ten times the speed of a bullet. The effect has been a significant increase in the incidence of debris damage to other satellites. This is interesting because while “space” is conceptually limitless, the section of space optimal for observing and communicating with our planet is becoming increasingly crowded. However, given all of the complexities associated with delimiting and regulating it, this “space” is still essentially a free for all, with actors ignoring externalities and shortsightedly plundering a limited resource. Thus, if we are not careful, space, or at least a section of it, could go the way of Hardin’s commons.

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