Emergence of space tourism highlights risks in the earth’s orbit

Space travel
The emergence of space tourism is turning the spotlight on a crowded lower-Earth orbit with dangerous debris threatening the safety of space missions.

Billionaire Richard Branson performed a test flight to space on July 11, 2021 accompanied by five of his Virgin Galactic employees, paving the way for the rollout of tourism trips next year.

The VSS Unity space plane detached from a carrier aircraft high over New Mexico and rocketed to a speed of Mach 3 on its way to an altitude of about 282,000 feet, or more than 53 miles (86 kilometres) above the Earth.

Nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos flew into space on a rocket made by Blue Origin, his space venture, to target wealthy tourists wanting to experience a short period of weightlessness and a unique view of the Earth.

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is already carrying astronauts to a space station for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is planning its own tourism flights. 

Strictly speaking, Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight is considered domestic travel as opposed to space travel as the VSS Unity did not cross the so-called Kármán line at 62 miles (100 kilometres) above the Earth’s surface, above which the outer space officially starts as per definition. 

Blue Origin’s rocket and SpaceX’s offering will cross this line. SpaceX is even fitting a transparent dome on the to the “nose” of its Crew Dragon spacecraft for its all-civilian launch on September 15, through which passengers will be able to take in an awe-inspiring panorama of space and the Earth from an orbital perspective.

A busy low Earth orbit 

The low Earth orbit, defined as the area of space below an altitude of 2,000 km (1,200 mi), is getting crowded.

In the last two years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of commercial satellites launched to near-Earth space, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

Many of these satellites are being launched into large constellations in order to provide communication services around the globe. 

Busy low Earth space

Source: ESA

While communication satellites bring great benefits, the growing numbers of objects circling the Earth is creating some challenges for space missions. 

In its latest report, ESA has warned that the increasing number of objects in orbit is making it hard to safely operate in space, not least because the kind of objects launched to low-Earth orbit are changing: on average, satellites are getting smaller and are often launched into large constellations of thousands of satellites.

During the first decades of space flight, more than half of objects launched into near-Earth orbit weighed upwards of 1000 kg. Today, such objects are a tiny fraction of the missions launched to space, with the vast majority being smaller satellites weighing between 100 - 1000 kg.

At high altitudes – in the so-called geostationary orbit, mostly used for communication satellites – almost all space actors attempt to sustainably clear their missions from orbit, and the vast majority do so successfully. But there are only a fixed number of spots available for satellites in geostationary orbit. Many countries on the equator believe that they have the right to control the space above their countries. As more nations want to launch geostationary satellites, conflicts can be expected.

The space debris issue

Space debris is a big and growing issue for space operations, particularly in the lower orbit where there are already many smaller satellites. 

Some of these objects safely burn up in the atmosphere eventually without intervention, but others need to be maneuvered to safety from the ground. More than half of space actors operating the latter type of missions currently make no attempt to sustainably dispose of their missions, according to ESA, and fuel left undisposed of on-board a satellite or rocket body can lead to explosions.

At lower altitudes, space missions will frequently encounter smaller satellites and constellations, which need to be swerved. Functional satellites need to be able to avoid collision with the debris that crosses their path. The process of ‘swerving’ a satellite out of the way of debris is time consuming but vital. 

The Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines published by the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) serve as the baseline for space policy, national legislation, and technical standards. The rules set out how ‘space actors’ should design, fly, and vitally dispose of their missions in order to prevent the creation of further debris. They include ‘passivation’; ensuring no explosive fuel is left on-board at the end of a mission's life, performing ‘collision avoidance manoeuvres’ to prevent in-space crashes, and the requirement to remove spacecraft from low-Earth orbit within 25 years of the end of their lives, among others.

Space operations need to have a plan of action for what to do with old satellites. There are companies specialised in removing and safely destroying such objects. Satellites in the geostationary orbit can last 15-18 years while satellites in the lower orbit have a shorter lifetime of around 10 years due to more gravitational pull and radiation. 

While the vast majority of rocket bodies and missions at high altitudes, in ‘geostationary orbit’, are being sustainably disposed of, more than half of operators flying in low-Earth orbit make no attempt to sustainably dispose of their missions, according to ESA.

A large proportion of debris objects in orbit today are leftover from just a couple “fragmentation events”, namely the infamous collision between satellites Cosmos-2251 and Iridium 33 in 2009 which created a huge cloud of debris, as well as various rocket related debris and the intentional explosion of Fengyun 1C in 2007. 

Small particles like paint from launch vehicles can fly at high speed and damage equipment. Debris as small as 2-5cm therefore needs to be monitored constantly to avoid accidents. 

The graph below shows the growing number of debris in orbit and their origins.

Debris in space

Source: ESA

PL = Payload (the “cargo”: usually one or many satellites that a rocket launches to space); PF = Payload Fragmentation Debris; PD = Payload Debris; PM = Payload Mission Related Object; RB = Rocket Body; RF = Rocket Fragmentation Debris; RD = Rocket Debris; RM = Rocket Mission Related Object; UI = Unidentified.

Managing risk in space

The risk of space operations is generally lower if the company leading the mission has extensive experience with launching vehicles, operating satellites, and if the technology used has been tested and used extensively. Further, the mission should have a good level of redundant capabilities and back-up options. 

Even small satellites undertakings require launch insurance and third party liability, for example to cover the cause of accidents if it creates debris that damages other objects. 

Space insurers usually have satellite engineers in their underwriting teams or the underwriters themselves have an engineering background. They will receive hundreds of pages of detailed information for each mission that needs to be analysed carefully. As a result, space missions take a long time to underwrite: It is not unusual for the process between the initial presentation and the binding of the risk to take several months.

The current hot topic after the recent Virgin Galactic launch is of course space tourism. Insurers believe that this new sector will offer plenty opportunities for underwriting in the future. There are currently no international regulations for space tourism, but insurance providers told DealBook publication that regulators will soon require liability insurance policies for trips into space. There is enough data on rocket launches for brokers and insurers to price these types of policies, however it isn’t currently known if they will go into the space or aviation market. There may also be the need for the personal accident market to be involved with regards to passenger coverage.

For further information, please contact our Lockton offices.

Article by:
Henrietta Barber, Senior Underwriter, Aviation and Space HDI Global Specialty 
T: +44 (0)20 7015 4042
E: Henrietta.Barber@hdi-specialty.com

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