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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Your tax dollars have been hard at work since the 1950s pushing the frontiers of space exploration funding government agencies like NASA. Yet that progress has come at a price: mankind has polluted space with waste. Lots of it.

Reaching up to 1,242 miles from the earth's surface, hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting litter are increasingly making operations in space riskier. A piece of space debris even 4 inches in length smashing into an astronaut or space vehicle at 20 times the speed of sound can have devastating consequences.

Some experts want taxes to be levied to finance a space cleanup, especially before the anticipated boom in "commercial space exploration" becomes a reality.

Is that feasible? Are we exaggerating the problem?

The Debris Debate

The answer to the second question is easier and clearer—yes, space debris is a huge problem. So huge that NASA already spends a lot of money on the Orbital Debris Program Office both to monitor the problem and to suggest solutions.

In 1978, a NASA scientist named Donald Kessler predicted a catastrophic situation where a large collision could set forth a chain reaction of metal fragments that would smash into hundreds of other satellites that would make low-earth orbit (100 to 200 miles off earth) unusable.

In 2009, Kessler's fears almost came true when two satellites collided—a U.S. Iridium and a Russian Cosmos. In 2011, the National Research Council published a report called "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft" reviewing NASA's efforts and preparedness to handle such scenarios.

Space debris is now also part of popular culture— Hollywood said goodbye to the old formula of asteroids crashing into earth in its latest blockbuster. Gravityand replaced it with space debris crashing into a space shuttle to drive the movie's plot.

Taxing Questions

With countries like China and India pursuing ambitious space programs, some of them militarized, the challenges of regulating space waste have grown considerably.

"The main regulatory hurdle is that we are talking about an activity that is fundamentally the realm of sovereign states," said Brian Weeden, technical advisor with the Secure World Foundation. "Under the existing space law regime, all space activity is the responsibility of nation states."

This brings us to the question of the feasibility of a space tax. Who will levy it? How will proceeds from the tax be distributed and used? Will the world's space community speak in one voice?

Weeden doesn't think so.

"Each state is required to provide on-going supervision of the space activities of all their national entities, including the private sector. That brings in elements of geopolitics, national security, and sovereignty that make a solution such as imposing a tax impossible," he said. Weeden should know, having built his expertise with a 9-year stint in the U.S. military's strategic and space communities before branching out as an expert on space situational awareness (SSA).

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Does he think that nations can at least levy a space tax on their own companies engaged in commercial space exploitation? Again, Weeden is skeptical.

"The tax adds the cost back into the pricing, which will create an incentive for the market to correct itself," he said. "The problem with applying that technique to space debris is that nearly all of it was creating by government activities in space over the last fifty years and not market activity. If there's no market, then there's no way to use market incentives."

Mission Clean-up

The Sixth European Conference on Space Debris organized under the aegis of the ESA in April 2013 generated some interesting ideas on dealing with the problem. While some may turn out to be impractical in the long run, it's proof that multiple efforts are being made to solve the problem.

EOS Space Systems, an Australian company, backed by both NASA and the Australian Government, plans to use low-powered ground-based lasers to shoot and destroy space junk before it collides with a satellite or space vehicle.

Then there is Astrium, an EADS group company that has won a contract from the French space agency CNES to develop solutions for removing large space debris. One ambitious approach being explored by the company is to fire a space harpoon at the debris to de-orbit it and have it destroyed by the forces of atmospheric reentry.

Weeden welcomes these multiple approaches.

"Space debris is a complex problem and there is no silver bullet solution," he said. "Instead, a basket of solutions is much more feasible. These would include establishing norms of responsible behavior with all space actors regarding the creation of new debris and better space situational awareness (SSA) so we know what's up there and can try and maneuver satellites out of the way. We also need better dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with accidents and negligent behavior."

Rather than a tax, Weeden believes that governments are going to have to spend some money to remove some of the larger space debris objects from the most crowded regions. Whether countries like China and India participate in these efforts is debatable. If the climate-change negotiations are any indicator, it would not be surprising if a divide were to emerge between developed space nations (the U.S., Russia) vs. developing space nations (China, India, Brazil).

No Time for Fence Sitting

The U.S., for its part, has been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to space debris. Since the 1960s, the USAF had maintained a network of ground-based sensors called the Air Force Space Surveillance System, or "Space Fence" as it is colloquially called, to improve SSA. A combination of obsolescence and sequestration-related financial constraints however led to the system being phased out this October.

The Air Force does have an ambitious plan for spending $6.1 billion on creating a new Space Fence based on cutting edge technologies (including space based sensors), but until it becomes a reality, the world will have to live with a hole in its space defense.

Ironically, this comes at a time when the space industry is poised for major growth. While government spending grew only 1.3% last year in the $304 billion global space market, commercial space products grew 6.5% and commercial infrastructure and support showed 11% growth. Famous tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla and Jeff Bezos of Amazon are backing ambitious space travel start-ups.

It may take rocket science to get to space, but it doesn't take rocket science to figure out that a comprehensive clean-up of space debris is required to avoid having future missions ending up with shuttles as twisted pieces of metal in outer space.

--Written by Preetam Kaushik for MainStreet