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After reading this question by Nick M (now closed) and exchanging some comments with him, I have some ideas related to the scenario. I realized that the comprehensive design covers several distinct topics and is not what the question asked, so I’m posting the questions I did answer, as new questions.


What would be a good economic framework to drive the motives of independent crews of Kessler Remediation and Salvage (KR&S) companies?

The KR&S companies clear debris from Earth orbit. They compete for profit and eek out a margin.

But rather than being an efficient well-planned system that fairly divides effort and profit among all involved, it should resemble a system that emerges organically out of a long history of contracts and cut-throat deals, from participants who act selfishly for their own short-term gains.

This can be used as a background for a role-playing game, a strategy game, (or a combined role-playing strategy game!), or a story that has a complex plot in the manner of an action/political thriller.

Besides the KR&S crews, note what other roles are available for players. Players can both cooperate and compete with players in different roles and others in the same role. In general, it should provide for maximum dramatic potential — or stated less dramatically, provide for conflict, differing motives among the players, and the ability to act on these conflicting motives independently of what other players are doing.

The tech level is near-future, with realistic things extrapolated from today’s designs. No 'magic' unobtainium!

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  • $\begingroup$ Just as an example of this sort of thing already in existence you might check out the hard sci-fi manga/anime Planetes in which space-based corporations employ their own debris cleanup crews. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Jun 14 '17 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ Drama is very much opinion based, I guess. Consider changing it to something like "potential for bloody competition", or anything more defined... $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 14 '17 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ It already has my upvote and no close vote. Thanks for making it a bit more better. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 14 '17 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot thanks for the clear constructive feedback! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 14 '17 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ Idea One, Differing cleanup crews have differing ideas on how to make money. Some want to recycle, some want to clear as much sky as possible. Add a managing bueracracy that handle contract awards with a dash of Jimmy Hoffa Union and Mob connections, and you have a heck of a setting $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jun 16 '17 at 15:39
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After bidding for orbits at the auctions, the buyers want them cleaned

Today (most) broadcasting markets in the world have been deregulated and are not subject to government monopoly. This along with a surge of private actors means that the æther is quite simple too crowded to let anyone and everyone play in there at once. Hence frequency space is auctioned out to keep some sort of order.

Now let us transfer this thinking to space...

Private spaceflight is on the rise. At the same time governments are stepping back. The de facto monopoly is about to be broken.

Posit therefore that that which happened to frequency space, has happened to actual space. Orbits are after all a finite resource. And with too many actors around to allow everyone to fly willy-nilly at the same time, orbits are auctioned out.

So there you are: Your Corporation Inc. have just gotten themselves a nice and neat orbit to play in for their business purposes. Only problem is: the orbit is not all that nice and neat. To speak plainly, it is a right mess. After eighty-some-odd years of space flight, and after a boom period of private spaceflight — where more missions than the mind will comfortably conceive ended in disaster — the orbits are in fact quite polluted with hazardous junk.

Your Corporation Inc. wants their freshly purchased orbit made clean. But they do not have the necessary competence, nor the proper equipment, nor the experience to safely conduct orbit-cleaning operations. And since this is a pretty much one-time affair anyway, they do not want to have to invest in all that out of their tight budget.

Hence they turn to the new section in the Business-to-Business Yellow Pages...

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    $\begingroup$ Just to pile on to this good idea: You can also have (like the movie industry or trucking industry) middle men: brokers that take the jobs and piece it out to sub-contractors, agents that find cleaners work for a 20% commission, unscrupulous cleaners illegally dumping garbage in other orbits, people patrolling clean orbits to prevent that; say they work for orbital insurance/protection companies (they have a vested interest in keeping a working orbit clean of debris). Salvage operations (the cleaners sell the garbage they collect). Sabotage to steal an orbit. A whole sub-culture out there. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 14 '17 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ All good, @Amadeus! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 14 '17 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ The biggest thing that jumps out at me from this is that many, many different orbits will cross any given orbit. However, in the simple case of circular equatorial orbits there is an extent to which this does make some sense as the vast majority of problem debris will be coplanar and likely to be pretty constrained in velocity by the fact that, presumably, a lot of other orbits have been cleaned in this way already. Still the question remains of whether this debris will be deorbited or just simply bumped into an eccentric orbit and then vaulted out farther. $\endgroup$ – Darren Ringer Jun 14 '17 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ Debris that would affect an orbiting satellite doesn't just live in that orbit. So cleaning will have a maintenance component. Companies will have to track things that will be endangering the satellite over time. I see cleaning contracts that go something like: Clean anything that will come within X meters of the satellite within Y years. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 16 '17 at 19:06
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Kessler Remediation and Salvage (KR&S) companies operate on targets which are derilict spacecraft (or pieces thereof) in Earth orbit. Every last bit down to dropped screws are to be removed from cluttering up space.

As planned (for the dramatic potential), this is a rather dysfunctional system that is, never the less, plausible in what grows out of individual actors all trying to act selfishly for short term gains — much like the real world.

Rather than coordinating the targets, or having crews bid on targets and file claims (which would be efficient and calm), I have a “reverse auction” system that sets up a prisoner’s dilemma situation between the companies, and also lets them “play dirty” on every detail.

The roles are: the Authority, the Responsible Parties, the Clearinghouses, and the KR&S companies.

Space junk is “owned” by some Responsible Party (RP). You can't tell who that is, even if the junk bears some logo or ID, because these are corporate “negative assets” that are bought and sold and traded and packaged as financial objects and so on. The RP is anonomous to the KR&S.

To manage orbital space, the Authory will impose taxes and fines. Out-of-the-way junk has a minimal tracking-tax, but stuff with orbital parameters that take it close to other bodies or extreme eccentricity etc. will have higher fees. As an effort to reduce the load of junk, there are incentives in the form of higher fees over time and fines for allowing the orbit to become problematic, or breaking into more parts, etc.

Here is the main economic model as the KR&S experiences it: The Clearinghouses [pun intended] are hired by the RPs. The CH posts bounties on the junk. The price for clearing a specific piece will start out small, and if there are no takers after some time, they will raise the price. Naturally if the junk is “cheap” to keep on the books they will offer only a minimal bounty, but if it gets older or moves into a dangerous area it will have a higher bounty.

And why it's cut-throat: The CH doesn’t care who takes care of it — it’s strictly pay on job completion to whoever shows up first. And they turn a blind eye to any dealbreaking and claim jumping among the KS&Rs.

Notice, for example, that if nobody takes a particular low-end target, the price will go up later. If one company doesn’t cooperate in waiting, it earns the current price. This is an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The logistics come into play, so targets on similar orbits are better to handle together, and different crews may currently be working different “lanes” so to speak. They can cooperate to divide up the work, … or not.

Meanwhile the Clearinghouses run logistical models on what the crews can do, and try to adjust bounties to provide opportunities for them that costs the least but allows the job to get done; or they can meddle with the dynamics between the KS&Rs by setting up conflicting motives. This indirectly provides a way for the CHs to affect other CHs, as they compete for profitable contracts with RPs.

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Every problem is also an opportunity. Getting resources into space is expensive. Mining asteroids is cheaper, but still not cheap since you have to get the resources from the asteroid belt, resources to the asteroid belt, and unlike what is depicted by Hollywood asteroids are actually very spread out, which means everything is really far away from everything else.

So while space junk is a danger, it is also a nearby resource which can be harvested and recycled.

Deorbiting junk is fairly simple, and I remember a proposal to pull junk out of orbit by using an electron gun to give items a charge, and then attracting or repulsing that to change the objects orbit.

Demand for resources would be pretty high once a couple fab units are put in orbit as a way to lower the cost of getting space craft into orbit by just building them there. These fab units would be able to process minerals from asteroids, but they would also be able to break down and recycled the processed minerals of space junk.

So KR&S companies would be started to electromagnetically lasso junk to be processed by the fab units to collect the salvage fees, and it's also possible that governments or companies might start a bounty program to encourage the capture of smaller objects that KR&S might not feel are worth the hassle of grabbing.

It is worth noting that NASA and the DoD cooperate and share responsibilities for characterizing the satellite (including orbital debris) environment. DoD's Space Surveillance Network tracks discrete objects as small as 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter in low Earth orbit and about 1 yard (1 meter) in geosynchronous orbit, and salvage companies would have access to this data.

This can be used as a way to provide extra bounties for high priority targets:
"There is a wrench on a collision course with this satellite, and will most likely destroy it. Let's put a $50,000 bonus on its capture so we don't lose our satellite!"

It can also be used as a double check to keep KR&S companies honest:
"We totally grabbed this bolt, which has a small item bonus. No of course we didn't break it off this other piece of salvage, who would do that?"

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent point that salvage is more valuable because it’s material already launched. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 14 '17 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Right. It's currently around $10,000 per pound to orbit, on top of the raw mineral cost and the refining cost. That cost is lowering over time, but until we develop a space elevator it's never going to be cheap. The raw mineral cost of asteroid mining (not including refining) may be \$2000-\$3000 per pound in the beginning. Any source of cheaper, nearby material will be extremely valuable, especially for hard to find rare earth minerals. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Jun 15 '17 at 13:23
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I'm imagining fleets of salvage ships floating around out there...Zero-G garbagemen picking stuff up and saving it or flinging it out into the inky depths of space. I think Vince Gilligan could do great stuff with this.

Now that that bit of whimsy is out of the way, lets get down and dirty. Start With a Bureaucracy in Charge of Kessler Remediation and Salvage. The Bureau is responsible for mapping the skies into lanes and layers. Layers are a measure of how high in orbit something is and lanes are the orbital track the item is following. Various KR&S companies bid yearly on contracts to keep that part of the sky clean.

Different types of companies are going to bid for different lanes and layers based on their own capabilities. Company A wants to get a hold of recyclables and sell them to the ever growing ISS. The choice bits of debris may be lower in the orbit, so that's how they bid. Company C has pioneered a new ship that is really good at flinging small bits out deeper into space, so they may go for a higher layer. The only thing the Bureau cares about is clear skies. Whatever happens to the junk after, they just don't care.

Anything valuable that is struck in a particular lane and layer will subject the contractor responsible to stiff fines.

The Bureau pays very handsomely, and is also willing to help the various companies with regular ground based railgun resupply shots. The Bureau owns and and controls all planetside railgun operations. Given that getting mass into orbit for operations is usually the most expensive thing about space travel, A rail shot is a relatively cheap way to get stuff up there. A Railgun can get most everything but people into orbit, and can be powered by a couple of reactors nearby. People to man the ships go up in a shuttle and rendezvous with the stuff shot by the railgun and begin operations.

So there is the setup. Here's how it could play: Contracts are yearly. If a company wants to expand, they would have to take over another company's lane and layer (there is only so much sky, after all) that means under bidding or maybe other Shennanigans. Bribery of Bureau officials for cheaper rates on rail shots comes to mind. Maybe one company nudges extra debris into another area, hoping to damage something and trigger a fine on another company. Unions want higher wages based on time in Microgravity. The possibilities for gritty stuff are endless.

Ship types can be widely varied. One that wants to catch debris and recycle it is going to be tough and possibly expensive in terms of propulsion. One that flies higher may simply use arrays of electromagnets to sling anything magnetic into the sun. Anything that can't be handled like that, a spacewalking cowboy gets out there and attaches a small, disposable electromagnet to the object. Then fling it into the sun.

With corrupt agencies, cut throat companies bidding on contracts, Space unions, you have a great, widely varied background to play in.

Eventually, you might find Jimmy Hoffa's body, squished in an upper stage of an old Saturn rocket, where it's been floating for the last 150 years.

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The biggest issue in setting up this sort of system is the seed money and incentivisaton to actually go out there and do this.

I suspect that the startup funding and overall incentive will come from insurance companies, which will realize that paying for debris sweeps will allow their very expensive investments (satellites) to last longer and continue to produce profits, rather than becoming the cause of multi million to billion dollar payouts.

So orbital "cleaners" will spring up to collect payments from insurance companies to clear debris from the orbits of active satellites, but of course this will devolve into a sort of lowest common denominator thing, with players trying to get in low bids to get some money and contracts from the insurance companies, and the insurance companies carefully researching low cost technologies to allow this to happen. There is a "floor" of course, spaceships which are too flimsy or prone to breaking apart on their own will certainly not be favoured by insurance companies, since that simply compounds the problem.

The only real downside to this is the most effective technologies might not even involve going into space, a powerful ground mounted "laser broom" can be used to deorbit a great deal of space debris, with the only possible space based accessories being "fighting mirrors" in orbit to redirect the beam at targets in unusual orbits or fulfill specific contractual obligations (the debris must drop over a particular geographical area, for example).

While not quite as exciting as "cowboys in space", it seems much more realistic.

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