Earth orbit debris: an economic model

by on October 6, 2013 at 6:26 pm in Economics, Film, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is a 2013 paper by Adilov, Alexander, and Cunningham, here is the abstract:

Space debris, an externality generated by expended launch vehicles and damaged satellites, reduces the expected value of space activities by increasing the probability of damaging existing satellites or other space vehicles. Unlike terrestrial pollution, debris created in the production process interacts with firms’ final products, and is, moreover, self-propagating. Collisions between debris or extant satellites creates additional debris. We construct an economic model to explore private incentives to launch satellites and to mitigate space debris. The model predicts that, relative to the social optimum, firms launch too many satellites and under-invest in debris mitigation technologies. We discuss remediation strategies and policies, and calculate a socially optimal Pigovian tax.

While we are on this topic, I very much liked the movie Gravity, which although it has some dialogue hearkens back to the silent classics of the past.  It has spectacular visuals, a “great stagnation” element, a don’t try to be Icarus, live in the mud, and be reborn and baptized in the water element, a reinterpretation of The Book of Job, and a “who builds the best infrastructure anyway?” theme.  On top of all that, it is subtle running commentary on the 1969 film *Marooned* and how much the world has, and hasn’t, changed since then.

eric falkenstein October 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I couldn’t get over the misunderstanding of inertia implicit in Clooney’s demise.

libert October 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm

That bothered me too!

centrifuge October 6, 2013 at 6:51 pm

I assumed they were spinning?

Ed October 6, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Actually, the space station was clearly not spinning, so it’s just a plot error.

Corvus October 7, 2013 at 7:43 am

In the shots of Clooney’s face as the pair dangle from ISS, the continuously scrolling star field background could suggest that they were spinning.

But whatever the explanation, I think this is a case of dramatic license rather than plot error.

JohnC October 6, 2013 at 9:36 pm

Agreed. Even so, I see “Gravity” like an incredibly sweet, breathtakingly beautiful girl, who sometimes wonders what the sun looks like at night: Focus on a few trees and you miss the pretty forest.

Alexander October 7, 2013 at 6:01 am

That’s actually a misunderstanding of what the ISS does. It was moving ‘forward’ while dragging the two thus not a plot error

msgkings October 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Spoiler alert! A little consideration please…
:-(

mulp October 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm

geez, sounds like leftist big government space tax and spend driven alarmism….

Space is so big that man can’t possibly put anything in space that would hit anything else man put in space. Besides, the universe has put googols more stuff in space that can damage any miniscule man-made space objects that any damage to a satellite is always from nature.

And the threat of world government dictating to America and taking the liberty of corporations and hindering profits and job creation is just another reason to impeach Obama.

Mark Thorson October 6, 2013 at 8:05 pm

Huh? There’s been one collision between two satellites and several others involving collision between satellites or other orbital vehicles and space debris.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_satellite_collision

It’s true space is a big place, but there are certain very desirable parts of space, such as the geostationary orbit belt.

Ed October 6, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Lower levels are more habitable by humans (radiation). Geostationary satellites all orbit at the same speed in the same direction, unlike lower satellites which have large relative velocities.

Malvolio October 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I think you should investigate Poe’s Law.

Alan October 7, 2013 at 2:09 am

Well played, sir. I suspect many readers here missed, or refuse to see, the obvious analogy.

BCC October 6, 2013 at 8:00 pm

You almost had me until the last sentence. “Liberty of corporations” was a dead giveaway.

BCC October 6, 2013 at 8:00 pm

That’s in response to mulp, btw.

FredR October 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

naaah. Like Children of Men, it’s a few clever technical ideas and a retarded story, bad taste, etc…

Andrew' October 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Please explain. I liked Children of Men but also felt something was off.

Fredr October 8, 2013 at 12:08 am

I enjoyed children of men in the theater, but in retrospect it was pretty dumb. In both cases, my theory is cuaron didn’t want to admit to himself that he was making b-movie sci-fi thrillers, and tried to throw in a lot of ostensibly higher brow drama that turned out corny and pretentious. Bullock’s bizarre backstory and CoM abandoning the religious resonance of its source material to gethijacked instead by some weird immigration/Abu graib moralizing are my big examples, although there are other smaller details I can think of that fit this as well. To my mind, cuaron doesn’t have ideas, but irritable mental gestures (composed of a grabbag of currently circulating cliches) masquerading as ideas.

Lucas October 6, 2013 at 8:57 pm

In such a case where pollution affects the polluting firms and only the polluting firms, why would there be any resistance to a Pigovian tax? The only alternatives are:

1) investment in debris-mitigation technology by individual firms, which will inevitably result in some firms enjoying free debris-mitigation paid for by other firms, or
2) no action with respect to space debris-mitigation, which will result in an increasing amount of space debris (probably at an exponential rate), leading to a significantly higher price of entry into the satellite industry.

Although, I suppose firms in the satellite industry would enjoy a higher price of entry into their market.

Andrew' October 7, 2013 at 5:34 am

“In such a case where pollution affects the polluting firms and only the polluting firms, why would there be any resistance to a Pigovian tax?”

Trivially, because the proceeds would be given to the NSA.

Thehova October 6, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Some have complained about the plot. But I thought it was fine.

For the visuals alone, Gravity is brilliant. See it in the theater.

Mark Thorson October 6, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Not me. At the age of four in 1962, I had a nightmare of being stranded in space. I remember very few dreams, but I remember that one! For sure, I will not be seeing this movie, and I am slightly distressed by the promos. I hope the movie bombs.

Jason October 6, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Definitely not bombing. Best October opening ever.

Ronald Brak October 6, 2013 at 11:58 pm

I think I now finally understand the US government shutdown.

Dan Weber October 7, 2013 at 8:53 am

I don’t think a Kessler syndrome could block out LEO long-term. Stuff doesn’t stay in LEO without boosting. It’s even hard for the moon with no atmosphere — I don’t think any of the lunar orbiters lasted more than a year (although they were deliberately crashed at end of life). And the more stuff collides, the more it gets knocked into weirder orbits. Short-term it would totally suck, of course, and that “short-term” could last a few decades.

Blocking out GEO seems scarier.

William Ames October 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Tidal forces cause the Moon to wobble, making lunar orbits unstable. It’s not an effect inherent to low orbits.

Dan Weber October 7, 2013 at 9:52 pm

I’m trying to remember the name of the program where a US agency put a bunch of metal filings into space for some experiment. I think some of them might still be there. Can someone fill in my blank?

Ronald Brak October 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Project West Ford:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_West_Ford

This experiment done by MIT for the millitary placed 480,000 microscopic copper needles in orbit between 3,500 to 3,800 km up. They were so fine they were only expected to stay in orbit for 3 years due to the pressure of sunlight but some did not disperse and so apparently there are still clumps up there.

Komori October 7, 2013 at 9:22 am

On the subject of space debris, I recommend the anime and manga Planetes.

Sam October 7, 2013 at 11:13 am

The movie is visually stunning but emotionally tasteless: The backstory about her daughter, the shot of her in the fetal position in front of earth, the scene where she barks like a dog – all so crass and exploitative. Worse was when her the tears were floating out as if we’re meant to think ‘wow her sadness is coming right at me!’

The real star of the movie was the special effects department. In a lot of movies production companies do all the work and then try to get A list actors, not for their intrinsic fit for the role, but as a recognizable face to draw a mass audience and hopefully turn a profit. It’s what makes Hollywood so overtly cynical compared to independent cinema. In this sense Gravity has the most casting movie I’ve ever seen. It’s normally an exaggeration to say “Hollywood tries to sell you a face” but in this case that’s explicitly what they did. It’s a $100 million production with some famous face literally superimposed into the CGI.

Didn’t help that Clooney’s character was insufferable and Sandra seemed like most incompetent astronaut ever.

Andrew' October 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm

“Clooney’s character was insufferable Sandra seemed like most incompetent astronaut ever.”

I got that from the trailer. I assumed it was a Bay/Bruckheimer-esque move to pre-build some sympathy for ‘Sandy’ and Clooney is playing stern Clooney and for me that is grating.

FredR October 8, 2013 at 10:31 am

Right on, soul brother. I think when Cowen says Straussian reading he really means ‘I’m think I’m such a strong reader that I can make bad art into good.’

prior probability October 7, 2013 at 11:18 am

But back to the paper referenced in Tyler’s post, why are Pigovian taxes always the default solution in economics? Whatever happened to the Coase theorem? To the extent there are only a small number of firms launching satellites into space, couldn’t the relevant parties reach a negotiated solution on the question of the optimal level of space launches?

Andrew' October 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm

What about lawsuits with expert witnesses who track space debris?

We do have the burden of proof problem with lawsuits contrasted to administrative fines and taxes…or not depending on how the John Roberts ideas work out…but actual damage payments might be better economically from taxes where the proceeds are frittered away.

Ronald Coase October 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

An interesting problem, but eminently solvable.

Brian Weeden October 9, 2013 at 2:50 pm

As someone who works in this field, I’d like to clear up a few things.

The Kessler Syndrome has been greatly abused by the media. It does not say that Earth orbit will become completely unusable. What it says is that there will be a point at which the population of man-made debris in orbit will pose a bigger collision threat to active spacecraft than the natural debris environment (stuff from asteroids and comets). The main source of this risk will be from collisions between debris objects in space, which will drive the long-term growth in the debris population. Kessler explained all this himself here:
http://webpages.charter.net/dkessler/files/KesSym.html

It is true that different orbital regions are affected differently. Much of the orbital debris is located in low Earth orbit (generally defined as altitudes less than 1000 km). And while the upper atmosphere does “clean out” a portion of LEO, that only works up to about 500 km or so. The biggest concentration of debris is between the altitudes of 700 and 900 km, where most of the valuable satellites in LEO exist. This is because the debris is associated with our use of this orbital regime, and at these altitudes it will take decades (or longer) for debris to decay out due to atmospheric drag.

Applying a Pigovian tax to space launches is an interesting academic exercise, but one with huge (and IMHO crippling) obstacles to implementation in reality. Furthermore, this approach assumes the outer space is a global commons that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. That is not the case.The most heavily-used regions in LEO and GEO are actually rivalrous and congestible, making them common-pool resources and not a global commons. Debris is much less of a problem in GEO, largely because there are market forces that deal with the externality.

Thus I have been approaching this problem using Ostrom’s framework for sustainable governance of a CPR:
http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2093/1
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0265964612000604

Jacob A. Geller October 12, 2013 at 10:53 pm

The paper’s finding is so obvious yet understated that it’s actually funny when read immediately after watching Gravity (as I just did), like reading this paper abstract after skydiving:

“As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been
subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have
criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if
the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo
controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.”

http://elucidation.free.fr/parachuteBMJ.pdf

…note that the paper is actually an April fool’s joke.

Geburtstagssprüche October 17, 2013 at 1:57 am

I rarely comment, however i did a few searching and wound up here
Earth orbit debris: an economic model. And I do have a couple
of questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be
only me or does it appear like a few of the responses look like they are coming from brain dead people?

:-P And, if you are posting at other online sites, I’d like
to follow anything fresh you have to post. Could you make a list
of all of your public sites like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

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