Does the recent incident of an active US commercial satellite colliding with an expired Russian military satellite necessitates the reevaluation of existing insurance of space-bound and space-based assets?
By: Vanessa Uy
Last Tuesday – February 10, 2009 – an active commercial US telecommunications satellite had the unlikely misfortune of colliding with an already expired – but still intact – Russian Cosmos military satellite 800 kilometers above Northern Siberia. Both Earth-orbiting satellites apparently tried to cross the same point in space at the same time as they are traveling at the standard orbital speed of 17,380 miles per hour. The collision of two still-intact satellites was the first known accident of its kind in the history of space exploration and commercialization.
The resulting collision created a debris field comprised of a little over 600 RADAR-trackable debris that has the potential of endangering other multi-billion dollar space-based assets. Like the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station – which happens to travel within the same orbit window of the debris field of the recent satellite collision. Putting the long-term operations of these space-based assets in jeopardy.
As the first ever head-on crash of still-intact satellites in Earth orbit could also endanger other still active telecommunications satellites that make our current Internet and mobile phone / cellular phone systems possible. Given the existing and future risks, are existing insurance terms on space-based assets up to the task in providing equitable financial compensation when it comes to dealing with infrequent – but catastrophic – incidents such as these?
After reading Space Debris: Models and Risk Analysis by Heiner Klinkrad, the scientific data that could aid in providing equitable payouts for infrequent – but nonetheless catastrophic- satellite collisions such as these already exists. Klinkrad’s book did provide a comprehensive background in understanding the various sources of space debris and the assessment of associated risks of current and future space debris environment. While non-trackable objects – i.e. fragments too small to be “seen” by current RADAR technology - produced by historic on-orbit fragmentation events and several other sources of space debris are also discussed. Klinkrad’s book also discussed risk assessment models concerning with meteoroids when they turn into meteorite-strike hazards for both space-based assets and those back on Earth. Given that scientific data concerning the risk assessment of the impact and collision hazards of satellites and spacecraft already exists, will other academic research like that done by Heiner Klinkrad eventually shape the future structure of insurance products intended for our commercial and scientific space-based assets?
Currently, there are some 17,000 RADAR-trackable objects scrutinized by NORAD, which by the way also warns NASA’s manned missions of incoming space-debris – if their RADAR can “see” it – so as to take the necessary evasive maneuvers. Though the celestial mechanics of more than three bodies cannot be easily analyzed using the techniques developed by Victor Szebehely – make that the 600-plus orbital debris that resulted from the February 10, 2009 satellite collision. Especially if you take into account the gravitational influences of the major celestial bodies like the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, or whichever planet comes close to us at this time. Given that the cost of space assets from construction to launch can run into the millions, insuring them won’t be cheap.
But as the established insurance clauses on satellite and spacecraft are based on sound science, should the risk assessments be constantly reevaluated since orbital debris are steadily increasing as the years go by? Back in the early 1990’s, there were only 8,000 RADAR-trackable orbital debris in existence, now it is 17,000. Sooner or later, this would result in constant risk-assessment upgrades, or developed space-launch processes that produce lesser orbital debris than current ones.