The Tragedy of the Commons in Orbital Space: Toward a Circular Economy

Posted February 29, 2024 | Technology | Amplify
The Tragedy of the Commons in Orbital Space
In this issue:

Moriba K. Jah points to a growing concern over mankind’s ability to use orbital space for long-term benefit. Orbital space is not infinite; yet several companies are planning large-scale satellite launches in the next few years. When added to operating and abandoned satellites (and other space debris) in geostationary orbit (GEO), and low Earth orbit (LEO) orbits, there’s the potential for “a tragedy of the commons.” Jah proposes a solution guided by the tenets of traditional ecological knowledge, including recognizing space as a dynamic ecosystem in which changes in one part can impact the whole, designing satellites and spacecraft for longevity/reusability, and promoting a greater sense of accountability among spacefaring nations and commercial entities. Shifting from a linear space economy to a circular one, says Jah, would not only prevent orbital ecocide, but it would also preserve the final frontier as a resource and habitat for future generations.


In the vast expanse of our sky, where celestial bodies dance to a delicate choreography, humanity is extending its reach into the final frontier: orbital space. Once perceived as infinite and boundless, this domain has become the stage for a complex interplay of technological advancement, geopolitical saber-rattling, and commercial exploitation. Within the tapestry of this celestial canvas lies a growing concern, one that threatens to unravel the fabric of our collective aspirations: the loss of our ability to use space to our long-term benefit.

Contrary to popular perception, orbital space is not an endless void awaiting our limitless expansion. Instead, it is a meticulously organized realm governed by the laws of physics and social science, where satellites, rocket bodies, and debris traverse specific pathways known as “orbital highways.” Just as terrestrial highways accommodate a finite number of vehicles before succumbing to congestion, orbital highways have carrying capacities dictated by (1) the delicate balance of the curvature of space-time we call “gravity” and (2) humanity’s need for the robots in the sky we call “satellites.”

Several companies are poised to launch and operate tens of thousands of satellites on these orbital highways in the next few years. And the challenge of orbital congestion is not limited to the proliferation of operational satellites. Lurking amidst the celestial highways are tens of thousands of anthropogenic space objects. These remnants of past missions and failed ventures pose a significant threat to active spacecraft and human safety. From spent rocket stages to defunct satellites, orbital debris serves as a grim reminder of humanity’s flippant attitude toward orbital stewardship.

In light of these challenges, the notion of a tragedy of the commons in orbital space looms large. Just as the overexploitation of shared resources on Earth has led to depletion and degradation, the unchecked proliferation of satellites and debris in orbital space jeopardizes the long-term sustainability and viability of space exploration and utilization.

Amid the uncertainty and complexity of the orbital landscape, there’s a glimmer of hope: a path forward guided by principles of sustainability, cooperation, and responsible stewardship. This article contends that the transition from a linear space economy, characterized by waste and inefficiency, to a circular one, grounded in the principles of reuse, recycling, and responsible resource management, offers a viable solution to the challenges facing orbital space.1 This approach is inspired by the tenets of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) currently residing (but vanishing) in sparse pockets of Indigenous people.2

With collaborative effort and collective action, we can ensure that the final frontier is not a battleground of neglect and exploitation but a beacon of hope and inspiration for future generations.

Orbital Highways: Finite Resources in a Crowded Sky

The term “orbital highways” evokes a sense of order and structure in the vast expanse of space. In reality, they are not infinite expanses but carefully delineated pathways that accommodate the movement of satellites and spacecraft. Just as highways on Earth have limits, orbital highways possess finite carrying capacities.

Among the most coveted of these orbital highways is the geostationary orbit (GEO), situated approximately 36,000 kilometers above the Earth’s equator. Renowned for its unique properties of stability and fixed position relative to the Earth’s surface, GEO has become a “Goldilocks” destination for communications satellites, weather observation platforms, and Earth-monitoring instruments. This has led to a veritable traffic jam in space, as nations and commercial entities vie for slots.

As the number of GEO satellites rises, propelled by the insatiable demand for global connectivity and telecommunications services, the orbital highway approaches saturation. Already, concerns have been raised about the potential for congestion and collision in GEO, where a single misstep could have catastrophic consequences for the critical infrastructure of our modern society.3

Similarly, the low Earth orbit (LEO) represents a bustling thoroughfare teeming with satellites and spacecraft, ranging from scientific probes to commercial ventures. Situated at altitudes ranging from a few hundred to roughly a thousand kilometers above the Earth’s surface, LEO is a gateway to a multitude of applications, including Earth observation, navigation, and communications. The proliferation of satellites in LEO has led to concerns about overcrowding and collision risk, particularly with the advent of mega-constellations comprising thousands of interconnected satellites.

The recent proliferation of mega-constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, has raised alarm bells among astronomers and space agencies. Envisioned to provide global broadband Internet coverage, they threaten to saturate LEO with tens of thousands of satellites, transforming the night sky into a veritable minefield of bright streaks and glimmers. Moreover, their deployment poses significant challenges for space traffic management and collision avoidance, as the sheer volume of objects in LEO exceeds the capacity of tracking and monitoring systems in the absence of a global space traffic coordination and management system.4

Beyond immediate concerns about congestion and collision, the proliferation of satellites and spacecraft in orbital space has broader implications for long-term sustainability and viability. Each satellite in orbit represents not only an investment of resources but also a commitment to maintaining and operating that asset for its intended lifespan. However, as orbital highways become more congested, the risk of collisions grows, threatening the continued operation of active satellites and the safety of future space missions.

Just as terrestrial highways require traffic regulations and infrastructure investments to ensure safe and efficient movement, orbital highways require international cooperation and coordination to prevent a tragedy of the commons and preserve the sanctity of space for future generations.

Tracking the Traces: A Sky Filled with Debris

As humanity explores the use of orbital space, the legacy of our endeavors manifests in both the satellites and spacecraft that grace the heavens and the debris littering the celestial highways. It serves as a stark reminder of our collective impact on orbital space and the consequences of our actions.

More than 50,000 anthropogenic space objects populate the skies, each a testament to humanity’s ingenuity and ambition. Only a fraction serves operational roles, fulfilling critical functions such as communications, navigation, and scientific research; the remainder drifts aimlessly through orbital space, posing a risk to human life as spacecraft attempt to navigate through them. Among these objects are satellites no longer in use, their once-shining surfaces now reflecting sunlight. This is a significant challenge for astronomers, whose quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe relies on clear, unobstructed views of the heavens.

For Indigenous peoples and others with cultural ties to the sky, the proliferation of satellites and debris represents a desecration of sacred space — a violation of the natural order and a disruption of ancestral traditions. As the night sky becomes cluttered with artificial objects, the voices of those who hold reverence for the heavens grow fainter, drowned out by the cacophony of human endeavor.

Not surprisingly, the “Dark & Quiet Skies” movement is gaining momentum as it advocates for the preservation of pristine night skies free from the intrusion of artificial light and space debris.5 Recognizing the importance of preserving the cultural and scientific value of the night sky, the United Nations (UN) has begun to consider Dark & Quiet Skies as a crucial aspect of space sustainability, incorporating it into discussions and initiatives aimed at mitigating the impact of human activity on orbital space.

Efforts to track and monitor space debris, which is born of past missions and failed ventures, have thus become paramount, with space agencies and organizations around the world working tirelessly to catalog the growing population of objects in orbit. Ground-based radar systems, optical telescopes, and space-based sensors provide crucial data on the location, trajectory, and characteristics of debris, enabling operators to predict potential collisions and maneuver spacecraft out of harm’s way. Privateer’s Wayfinder is a publicly available tool that provides multisourced evidence of our orbital clutter.6

Initiatives such as Space-Track and the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office are vital in coordinating international efforts to track and mitigate the threat of space debris.7,8 By sharing data and collaborating on R&D, these organizations seek to reduce collision risk and preserve the long-term sustainability of orbital space.

Space debris poses a threat to the safety of future generations. Only through concerted international cooperation and innovation can we hope to address these challenges and preserve the sanctity of space, ensuring that the voices of astronomers and those with cultural and spiritual relationships to the sky are heard and respected.

The Voices of Our Indigenous People Can Guide Us

The tenets of TEK offer valuable insights and principles that can inform our approach to holistically managing and caring for orbital space. Rooted in the wisdom and practices of Indigenous cultures and communities, TEK emphasizes interconnectedness, sustainability, and respect for the natural world. By applying these principles to our interactions with orbital space, we can develop a holistic, sustainable approach to space exploration and utilization.

One key tenet of TEK is the recognition of the interconnectedness of all life and systems. In the context of orbital space, this involves understanding the complex interactions between satellites, spacecraft, space debris, and the broader celestial environment. Rather than viewing orbital space as a collection of isolated objects and resources, we must recognize it as a dynamic ecosystem in which changes to one part of the system can have far-reaching impacts on the whole. By adopting a holistic perspective, we can better anticipate and mitigate the unintended consequences of our actions in space.

Another core principle of TEK is the importance of sustainability and long-term stewardship. Traditional societies have thrived for generations by carefully managing their natural resources and ecosystems, ensuring they remain healthy and productive. In orbital space, we must adopt practices and policies that promote the sustainable use of resources and minimize our environmental impact. This includes designing satellites and spacecraft for longevity and reusability, implementing measures to mitigate space debris, and developing technologies for in-orbit recycling and resource utilization.

TEK also emphasizes the importance of respect and reciprocity in our relationships with the natural world. Indigenous communities often view themselves as stewards of the land, with a responsibility to care for and protect the environment. In the context of orbital space, this means a greater sense of accountability among spacefaring nations and commercial entities. We must recognize that orbital space is a shared resource, belonging to all humanity and future generations, and act accordingly to preserve and protect it for the benefit of all.

TEK highlights the importance of community-based decision-making and collaboration. Indigenous societies have long relied on collective wisdom and consensus-building to address complex environmental challenges and sustainably manage natural resources. In orbital space, we must foster international cooperation and collaboration to address the shared challenges and risks facing the space environment, another finite resource.

By working together, sharing knowledge and resources, and respecting diverse perspectives and values, we can develop effective, equitable solutions to manage and care for orbital space.

From Linear to Circular: A Blueprint for Space Sustainability

As humanity’s footprint in orbital space expands, so does the recognition that our linear approach to space utilization poses significant risks, including the threat of orbital ecocide. The prevailing model, characterized by the launch of single-use satellites and the proliferation of space debris, resembles a one-way trajectory toward congestion, conflict, and potentially irreversible environmental degradation. To avoid this, we must transition from a linear space economy to a circular one that is grounded in principles of sustainability, stewardship, and innovation and inspired by TEK.9

At the core of the circular space economy lies the concept of resource efficiency and reuse. Rather than treating satellites and spacecraft as disposable entities to abandon, we must design them for longevity and reusability. Modular designs, standardized interfaces, and in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities can prolong the lifespan of existing assets, reducing the need for costly replacements and mitigating space debris proliferation.10

Embracing ISAM and resource use holds promise for transforming orbital space into a self-sustaining ecosystem. By tapping into the abundant resources available in space, such as solar energy and asteroid materials, we can reduce our dependence on Earth-bound supplies and pave the way for an independent and sustainable space economy. 3D printing (or additive manufacturing), for example, can facilitate the construction of large-scale structures and habitats in orbit, and technologies for extracting and refining asteroid resources offer a glimpse of a future where humanity thrives harmoniously with the environment.

The transition to a circular space economy also demands a reevaluation of space governance and regulation. Current regulations focus primarily on safety and security; a circular economy mindset requires a broader approach that prioritizes sustainability, equity, and inclusivity. International agreements and treaties must be updated to incent responsible behavior and discourage negligence. Mechanisms for space debris mitigation and remediation must be strengthened, with an emphasis on active debris removal and end-of-life disposal protocols.

Simultaneously, efforts to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the space sector must intensify. Governments, academia, and industry should collaborate to develop and commercialize cutting-edge technologies for sustainable space exploration and utilization. Public-private partnerships offer valuable opportunities for investment and collaboration, driving the development of new capabilities and business models that support a circular space economy.

Transitioning from a linear to a circular space economy is not just about sustainability — it’s about preventing orbital ecocide and ensuring the long-term viability of orbital space as a resource and habitat. By embracing resource efficiency, reuse, and innovation, we can safeguard the celestial environment and preserve the final frontier for future generations. Through collective action and a shared commitment to stewardship, we can navigate toward a brighter future where space remains a sanctuary for exploration, discovery, and human progress.


The journey through the universe, both figuratively and literally, has brought humanity to a pivotal crossroads. Our exploration and use of orbital space have unlocked unprecedented opportunities for scientific discovery, technological innovation, and economic growth. But as our presence in space expands, so do the challenges and risks that accompany it. The current trajectory, characterized by a linear space economy and unchecked exploitation of orbital resources, threatens to push us toward a tragedy of the commons in which the collective pursuit of self-interest leads to the depletion and degradation of a shared resource.

The transition from a linear to a circular space economy offers a blueprint for addressing the pressing challenges facing orbital space. By embracing principles of resource efficiency, reuse, and innovation, we can transform orbital space into a vibrant ecosystem where human activity coexists with the natural rhythms of the universe.

This transition requires bold leadership, innovative technologies, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. It demands collaboration, cooperation, and collective action from governments, industry stakeholders, and the global community. Fortunately, momentum is building, with initiatives such as the Dark & Quiet Skies movement and the UN’s consideration of space sustainability highlighting the need to preserve orbital space for scientific, cultural, and environmental reasons.

As we navigate toward a circular space economy, we must be mindful of the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and in the cosmos. Just as terrestrial ecosystems rely on delicate balances and feedback loops to thrive, orbital space requires careful stewardship and management to avoid irreversible harm. By working together, we can build a future where space remains a sanctuary for exploration, discovery, and human progress.

The stars above serve as our guideposts on this journey, reminding us of the boundless potential that lies beyond the confines of our planet. Through collaboration, determination, and a shared commitment to sustainability, we can chart a course toward a future in which the stars shine bright, the skies remain dark and quiet, and the promise of the cosmos beckons us onward.


Jah, Moriba. “Environmentalism on Earth Points the Way to Responsibility in Space.” Aerospace America, October 2022.

Jah, Moriba. “Indigenous Peoples Have Much to Teach Us About Sustainability, Even in Space.” Aerospace America, July/August 2023.

Jah, Moriba. “We Have Landfills in Space, But We Don’t Have to.” Aerospace America, February 2023.

Jah, Moriba. “Occupation, Even in Orbit, Is Colonialism.” Aerospace America, November 2023.

Dark and Quiet Skies: An IAU Global Outreach Project.” International Astronomical Union (IAU), May 2023.

Wayfinder website, accessed February 2024. website, accessed February 2024.

Space Debris.” European Space Agency (ESA), accessed February 2024.

Jah, Moriba. “A Personal Vision for a Circular Space Economy.” Medium, 11 January 2024.

10 In-Space Serving, Assembly, and Manufacturing Interagency Working Group of the National Science & Technology Council. “In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing National Strategy.” Executive Office of the President of the United States, April 2022.

About The Author
Moriba Jah
Moriba K. Jah is cofounder and Chief Scientist at Privateer Space, where he leads the organization’s technical vision. Dr. Jah is a renowned space environmentalist and astro-dynamicist specializing in space object detection, tracking, identification, and characterization, as well as spacecraft navigation. He is Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin and the recipient of the Mrs… Read More