Understanding the Economics of Orbital Pollution Through the Lens of Terrestrial Climate Change

25 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2021

See all articles by Nodir Adilov

Nodir Adilov

Purdue University Fort Wayne

Peter J. Alexander

Federal Communications Commission

Brendan Michael Cunningham

U.S. Naval Academy; Eastern Connecticut State University

Date Written: June 2, 2021


Orbital space is an economically and socially valuable resource that provides a vast array of satellite communication services for consumers, businesses, scientists, and governments. Among the socially valuable services provided, orbital satellites collect various types of environmental data relating to the earth’s surface and atmosphere. These data help scientists monitor and better understand the evolving terrestrial environment.

When satellites are launched and undertake missions in orbital space, they create pollution in the form of orbital debris. Orbital debris can, and does, damage or destroy other satellites. National entities that utilize orbital space pledge to follow voluntary guidelines for minimizing orbital debris, but many do not comply. This non-compliant behavior, along with a substantial increase in the number of satellites in orbit, causes the density of the debris fields in orbit to increase, making it more likely that an increasing number of other satellites will be damaged or destroyed. The limiting case of this process is a “collisional cascade” which renders an orbit unusable.

This scenario is broadly analogous to the effects of human-produced CO2, both in terms of the increasing economic and social costs of environmental damage over time and the difficulty in binding nations to international agreements. Because satellites are vital to monitoring terrestrial conditions and provide unique data on the current state of the global environment, we suggest there is a natural linkage for including orbital space in climate change negotiations. While this might complicate climate change negotiations, it could also usefully expand the overall bargaining space, providing new opportunities for agreement.

Keywords: orbital debris, climate change, space economics, orbital pollution

JEL Classification: Q5

Suggested Citation

Adilov, Nodir and Alexander, Peter J. and Cunningham, Brendan Michael and Cunningham, Brendan Michael, Understanding the Economics of Orbital Pollution Through the Lens of Terrestrial Climate Change (June 2, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3900257 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3900257

Nodir Adilov (Contact Author)

Purdue University Fort Wayne ( email )

United States
2604816497 (Phone)

Peter J. Alexander

Federal Communications Commission ( email )

Washington, DC 20554
United States

Brendan Michael Cunningham

U.S. Naval Academy ( email )

Department of Economics
589 McNair Road
Annapolis, MD 21402
United States
410-293-6894 (Phone)
508-302-2596 (Fax)

Eastern Connecticut State University ( email )

Willimantic, CT 06226
United States

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