As of July 2013, estimates of more than 170 million debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 670,000 debris 1–10 cm, and approximately 29,000 larger pieces of debris are in orbit.

Space debris poses a serious threat to operational satellites in space and collisions are a real possibility and can prove fatal to the mission, and possibly human lives.

Feasible technologies to deal with the space debris problem do exist.

A December 2009 conference sponsored by NASA and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), featured many proposed solutions, including large orbiting shields to catch small debris, ground-based lasers to ablate the front side of debris to deboost it, and active spacecraft to capture large debris items and drag them down to atmospheric entry.

Source: Klinkrad, Heiner, and Johnson, Nicholas, “Space Debris Environment Remediation Concepts,” NASA-DARPA International Conference on Orbital Debris Removal, Chantilly, VA, 8-10 December 2009.

There is also the electroDynamic debris eliminator, which is a low-cost solution, efficient and weighs less.

Considering how serious a problem space debris (especially those in LEO) poses to operational satellites, and given that feasible solutions do exist, why hasn't any active space debris removal system been implemented so far (to my knowledge)?

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    $\begingroup$ "Considering how serious a problem space debris poses" how serious (severity, likelihood) is this risk? $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JCRM I thought it was a more immediate danger than it apparently is, judging by Hohmannfan's succinct answer. $\endgroup$
    – user33891
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ "'Feasible' technologies to deal with [climate change] do exist." - Why is the climate change debate so often framed in terms of whether or not it's due to human activity? - I'll give you three guesses, but if you need more than one you should sign up at Finance.SE $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ There's always two and only two reasons why something does or doesn't get done in space: #1 cost, and #2 engineering. Because #1 space is hard, and #2 space is expensive. You knew that, right? $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 5:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica the answer to "Why are the relevant players underestimating the danger of X?" is always either #1 "no, you're overestimating it" or #2 "Because they're shortsighted". $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 19:08

1 Answer 1


Removing debris costs money.

Even with many words like "efficient", "low-cost", and so forth, a system capable of removing a significant amount of space debris still involves a budget requirement containing a large number of digits.

For other space programs, the motivation for the large sums of money spent is a gain of some sort. Scientific data, military capabilities, prestige, commercial services, etc.

But for a pure debris removal program, the only gain is a risk reduction for other programs. This risk is not terribly large to begin with. Both manned and unmanned missions are much more likely to fail for other reasons than collisions with space debris. Even if all debris suddenly vanished, it wouldn't change the risk of current missions much.

As such, there's not a large enough economic gain from removing debris to justify a budget.

The amount of debris will presumably continue to slowly increase, and the cost of a debris removal system will presumably slowly decrease. At some point, these curves will meet, making debris removal worthwhile. We are not there yet.

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    $\begingroup$ @DrishikaNadella This is over a decade ago, but up until then, only 1 satellite had been lost due to catastrophic collisions with orbital debris. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Concerning the point at which these curves will meet: Iridium is only willing to pay about $10,000 per deorbit of a defunct satellite (cough) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ Great: my tuppence 1) currently the principal risk to satellites today is that they go wrong of their own accord 2) the debris risk bears a resemblence to global warming as a tragedy of the commons in the sense that whilst there can be recognition of the trend there is confusion/disagreement about the rate of change and in the meantime the usual human reaction is not to worry about it until there is seawater in the front garden. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ I've always thought that the videos showing how much debris there is in space is alarmism of the worst sort. That's because spacecraft of the size needed to be visible on video would have to be tens or even hundreds of miles in diameter. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 5:30
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    $\begingroup$ @EverydayAstronaut 10k to deorbit is such a joke figure, it will take decades to each that low level of cost or some novel way to remove debris. "Someone" needs to mandate that if you want to go into space you need to pay for some % of removal, if all launchers and payloads payed into a fund for removal we would be there much faster. Though I do agree its not a huge problem and "looks" worse than it will be for a long time. Also, regulations are finally being talked about to mandate deobit procedures after x years $\endgroup$
    – Stickyz
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 15:22

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