A small chunk of space debris strikes an orbiting weather satellite, breaking it apart and sending shattered pieces speeding into another used for global navigation.
It too splinters and the destructive pace continues – one hurling piece creating thousands more – as an uncontrolled chain reaction miles above Earth renders satellite after satellite useless.
Television signals are lost. Flight communications are gone. Financial transactions are terminated. Global weather predictions are diminished. Military operations are compromised.
It could take decades, but Earths space is on pace to become a junkyard.
Reminiscent of the current movie Gravity, in which astronauts are left adrift in space by debris, the scenario is not science fiction but a possibility based on the tons of metal that humans have sent into orbit in the more than 50 years since the launch of Sputnik.
But IPFW associate professor Nodir Adilov and his research colleagues have a plan: tax space.
Adilov, 35, chairman of IPFWs economics department, specializes in the telecommunications industry, for which satellites are integral. He is one of three economists who wrote a research paper proposing a space user tax with the dual purpose of decreasing the amount of equipment shot into orbit and helping to clean up the debris thats there.
We are becoming more reliant on satellites for communications, Adilov said, but companies are reluctant to pay for space cleanup because of the cost.
The paper, released last spring and currently being evaluated by other experts in the field, is to show that you can actually use taxes to deal with this issue, he said.
Space is a valuable resource. Global satellite industry revenues totaled $189.5 billion in 2012, according to the Satellite Industry Association. There are about 965 active satellites in orbit, nearly half of them belonging to the U.S., according to the research paper. About a quarter of the U.S. satellites are for military use.
Currently there are voluntary guidelines that deal with space debris, making it difficult to enforce cleanup, Adilov said. Space is a shared resource, and with no disincentive, governments and corporations tend to add excessive debris. An international agreement is needed to resolve the issue, Adilov said. A tax is an option. Doing nothing could get scary.
Don Kessler, an astrophysicist and former director of NASAs Orbital Debris Program, first theorized the possibility of a massive space debris chain reaction in 1978. Now known as the Kessler Syndrome, the collisions would render some space unusable. While the probability of that happening is unknown, it increases as more debris is added. But it likely will take decades.
Kessler told The Guardian that space collisions will occur over the next 100 years, becoming more common as decades pass if nothing is done.
NASA tracks more than 21,000 man-made pieces of debris bigger than 4 inches. Millions of smaller pieces are not tracked.
Adilov and his fellow researchers suggest that since the U.S., Russia and China have created most of the debris, they should be taxed more.
It has to happen in some fashion and someone has to pay for it, Peter Alexander, another author of the paper and an economist at the Federal Communications Commission, said in an email to The Journal Gazette. A user fee could be levied on the companies and others who launch satellites into orbit, and this fee could be used to fund the cleanup of critical orbits.
Alexander said he helped write the paper as a private citizen and does not speak for the FCC.
He and Brendan Cunningham, an economist at the United States Naval Academy and the papers other author, said it holds promise.
The paper has a bright future, in my estimation, and we have equally promising new papers under development, Cunningham said in an email. It is difficult to predict the likelihood that a tax would pass. The pace of international environmental agreements, as well as trade agreements, seems to have slowed.
Adilov also sees a space tax as a real possibility.
I think there could be a good chance, but it will take a long time, maybe 10 years or more, he said. But its something feasible and as the debris field keeps on increasing, I think there will be much more pressure to deal with the issue.
A movie like Gravity cant hurt, although none of the three economists who wrote the paper has seen it.
But I have seen the trailer, Alexander said, and it looks awesome.