Is there any assessment of the annual cost of orbital debris for satellite operators?

I am interested in all kind causes of costs, such as:

  • damages to satellites in orbit
  • human-hours spent on investigating orbital debris mitigation and prevention schemes

I am aware that the question is broad but I would like to get a sense of the total cost and its repartition amongst different causes and satellite operators.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It might be useful to try and fully list all potential costs (as a community). So a few from me: catastrophic destruction, degradation due to small flecks of paint etc. (of solar panels for example), time spent writing collision calculation code, computation time required to run code, propulsion needs for avoidance maneuvers, EOL design aspects to mitigate creation of further debris. $\endgroup$
    – ThePlanMan
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ The situation today is not the problem. The threat is, as I'm sure you know, an escalating increase in collisions which causes more space debris and more collisions. It could cause a "van Allen belt of debris" around Earth, a region one wants to avoid, which would be a big problem for Earth observation satellites. The Kessler Syndrome One could calculate "the present value of expected future debris costs" of launching another satellite based on such predictions, but it would be uncertain. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 10:58

3 Answers 3


The number of actual collisions with orbital debris is incredibly low, all things considered. (Number of actual debilitating impacts vs number of active satellites divided by time. Odds are very very low). Sure flecks of paint have hit the Shuttle and ISS, but really a very small number of actual collisions causing damage, to a fairly large number of satellites, over many decades of operation.

To date, there have been 4 confirmed collisions between tracked objects:

  • 1991-12-23 (discovered in 2005): COSMOS 1934 (18985) vs. COSMOS 1275 DEB (13475)
  • 1996-07-24: CERISE (23606) vs. ARIANE 1 DEB (18208), Cerise was recovered and continued operations
  • 2005-01-17: THOR BURNER 2A R/B (7219) vs. CZ-4 DEB (26207)
  • 2009-02-10: Iridium 33 (24946) vs. COSMOS 2251 (22675)

There are other likely collisions, such as BLITS in January 2013, however the secondary in that case is likely to have been an uncataloged object. Several other satellite failures may be due to collisions with untracked/untrackable debris.

A real cost that comes up is the use of fuel to change orbit to avoid feared collisions.

On a satellite this shortens the useful lifespan, a direct cost. For the ISS this requires fuel that is brought up by Progress or ATV. It might even be possible to put an actual cost to that. But would be hard, need lots and lots of data to do it meaningfully, most of which would be considered proprietary.

  • $\begingroup$ ISS was/is publicly funded; shouldn't that data about fuel expended to change orbit be available to NASA stake-holders? i.e. citizens $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 17:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Everyone But the ATV which provides reboost, is provided as a barter agreement for US services. How much is that worth? It is likely possible to come up with a value, but it will be very accountant-y. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ @CoAstroGeek If you have enough rep, please edit that info in. I can do it, if you can't. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 19:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Everyone, much of the fuel used by the ISS, particularly for reboosting, is "whatever's left over in the tanks of the resupply vehicle". $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 6:15

Here are a few cost vectors (and I'm sure I'm missing some)

Debris mitigation in spacecraft and mission design.

This includes things like

  • Reduction of launch debris, stages left on orbit, etc.
  • end of life disposal capability
  • passivisation (ie. venting unused fuel, etc. to reduce risk of breakups)
  • reducing operational debris (stuff intentionally released from spacecraft during operations - lens caps, retaining devices, etc.)
  • collision avoidance, including initial orbit selection.

There are international, national and organizational standards governing this sort of thing. Here are a few examples:




Conjunction Analysis Screening

This is the big picture ongoing calculation and assessment of potential satellite collisions. While the calculation of the potential conjunction events is relatively straightforward, it requires as input, the full high accuracy space catalog. In the US, this is closely held by the Air Force at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). As such, they typically perform the high level screenings and provide warnings to interested satellite operators around the world as a free service. The Space Data Alliance - an industry consortium - also provides a conjunction screening service using owner/operator ephemeris from their members, which may be more accurate then the catalog maintained by the JSpOC, particularly for actively maneuvering objects.

Owner/Operator Conjunction Analysis & Response

Given an externally provided warning, an owner/operator must then analyze the event and decide on a course of action. This can incur significant technical manpower and may result in the execution of a spacecraft maneuver with a corresponding loss of operational life. Not all spacecraft have a maneuver capability, and not all operators of those that do perform active collision avoidance. Many operators subscribe to the big sky theory of collision avoidance.

Business Strategy

This would include costs such as constellation redundancy, insurance, etc. to protect the business operations in the face of various risks, including loss of spacecraft due to collision events.

  • $\begingroup$ Seconding these costs. I also want to mention the indirect cost spent on the countless research projects, conference papers, theses, and dissertations aimed at space debris,conjunction analysis, etc.. $\endgroup$
    – jah138
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 10:21

I agree with all the costs listed here. Also, I would add the extra-operations loss: calculating the fuel remaining in the tanks is quite complex. Considering a good margin to add to the number, the operator is "wasting" lifetime thus revenues. Using dedicated systems for the decommissioning may help operators to "passivate" the tanks extending satellites' life while being able to dispose them at EOL. For a GEO, let's say you need 16kg of propellant for the decommissioning. Thus about 3 to 5 months more time to spend in orbit making revenues. Even considering a lower lease price due to the old tech used at EOL, let's say $1M/y per beacon, and considering 24 to 60 beacons, the extra-revenues may be in the order of few million (6-15 million in case of 3 months extra-lifetime, 10-25 million in case of 5 months extra-lifetime). Not much considering the enormous amount of money generated so far, however, five times more than the cost of the independent decommissioning device. Plus the advantages of a short decommissioning - hence saving in operations time - much lower liability risk - difficult to calculate and being sure the sats are effectively removed even in case of failure.

Of course these are just guessed numbers. However I'm very interested on going deeper here, to put numbers on every pain related to debris mitigation impact for operators.



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