Professionalism/Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251

Most people underestimate the impact of satellites on their daily lives. Satellites are used in telecommunications, television, radio, weather-tracking, and more. In January 2011, there were an estimated 22,000 man-made objects in orbit, of which about 1,000 objects are active satellites (about 5% of all man-made objects).[1]. The other 95% of man-made objects are orbital debris such as fuel cells from previous spacecraft. Given the vastness of space, the probability of a satellite collision is perceived to be low. John Campbell, executive vice president for government programs for Iridium Communications Inc., endorses the “Big Sky” theory, which states that "space is so vast that the chances of a collision are infinitesimal."[2] In 2007, Campbell estimated “the risk of a collision on any individual conjunction is about 1 in 50 million,” adding later that “clearly that risk is greater than zero.”[2]

The collisionEdit

Russian Space Forces

On February 10, 2009, Iridium 33, an active American commercial satellite, collided with the derelict Russian satellite Kosmos 2251. This was the first collision between two intact satellites in orbit. [3] Iridium 33 was part of a constellation of 66 active satellites owned and operated by Iridium Communications Inc. The Iridium constellation is a system of satellites used for worldwide voice and data communication for hand-held satellite phones and other transceiver units [4]. Kosmos 2251 was owned by Russian Spaces Forces, a branch of the Russian military whose responsibilities include satellite operations. The Kosmos 2251 satellite was a communications relay station launched in June 1993 and decommissioned by 1995 [5]. The collision produced thousands of new pieces of space debris. Although much of it burned up in the atmosphere, the remaining debris still present a risk for future space launches. The debris temporarily created a dangerous space environment and made debris fields in surrounding orbits unpredictable. As of July 2009, the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN) has cataloged 382 pieces of debris (14 pieces of which have already decayed from orbit) associated with Iridium 33 and 893 pieces of debris (27 pieces of which have decayed) associated with Kosmos 2251.[6]

Collision diagram

Failures by satellite tracking technologyEdit

High velocities and uncertain orbits make satellites difficult to track. Precise, up-to-date positions are difficult to obtain. Calculations made by CelesTrak, a satellite tracking website run by software development company AGI, predicted that the two satellites would miss by approximately 584 meters.[6] CelesTrak constantly tracks satellites in orbit and displays near-future collision warnings. According to CelesTrak, the Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251 approach was not the closest approach on the February 10, 2009 report, nor were the satellites predicted for closest approach anytime within the coming week.[6] John Campbell of Iridium asserted that there was no warning of the collision.[7]

Ethics of the collisionEdit

Known orbit planes of Fengyun-1C debris one month after its disintegration by the Chinese ASAT (orbits exaggerated for visibility)

The events leading up to and following the collision reveal each groups' ethical decisions. Two years before the collision, the Chinese purposefully destroyed a weather satellite in orbit. The 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test brought international attention to the space debris issue.

Iridium CommunicationsEdit

In response to the Chinese test, John Campbell expressed concerns that the test had increased the number of “serious conjunctions” on the Iridium constellation by 15%. “Serious conjunctions” are close approaches between two objects in orbit. They help assess the probability of collision and provide warning to satellite owner-operators. The Department of Defense’s Joint Space Operations Center (JspOC) provided Iridium with a daily conjunction report. Iridium got over 400 of these reports each week across the entire Iridium constellation. Campbell questioned the error in these reports, saying it was too large for the reports to be useful. He speculated that such error could cause the firm to maneuver into a new collision whilst avoiding another. Besides, there are significant costs for such maneuvers. They require depleting on-board fuel, which reduces the lifespan of the satellite and interrupts its mission. Satellite owner-operators must weigh the risk of collision (the loss of the entire satellite) against fuel costs. Thus, Iridium’s response to possible collisions was to “grit our teeth and hold our breath; that’s our action.”[8]

In the aftermath of the Iridium-Kosmos collision, there was speculation that Iridium had warnings of a close approach, yet failed to act. The communications company claims sometime between 2007 and 2009, JspOC stopped providing collision warning for the Iridium constellation.[9] Iridium still could have gained access to other commercial tracking systems. After the collision, Iridium spokeswoman, Liz DeCastro said “Iridium didn't have information prior to the collision to know that the collision would occur.”[2] A possible collision was beyond Iridium's event horizon. The communications company's inaction to obtain tracking for possible collisions is irresponsible of the owner-operator.

In a 2009 summer briefing, Campbell stated the collision proved network resiliency and that the loss of one satellite had minor effects on the network.[7] Iridium was able to recover relatively easily from the collision. Perhaps Iridium decided they could not afford the resources to deal with the decision-making and maneuvering necessary to safely and properly operate their satellites.[9] By ignoring the close approach, Iridium decided to accept the risk of a collision.

United States MilitaryEdit

The United States military maintains the best and most complete satellite catalog in the world, but it only observes a limited list of satellites for collisions and the data it makes publicly available is not very precise.[10] In Iridium's press release, Liz DeCastro stated, “if the organizations that monitor space had that information available, we are confident they would have shared it with us.”[2] Iridium shifts responsibility to the DoD and federal space-monitoring agencies. In the aftermath of the Chinese anti-satellite event, the US government was one of the most vociferous voices about orbital debris. However, it appears the actual funding, priority, and cooperation between commercial and military parties did not match the political rhetoric.[9] If the American military had knowledge of a possible collision and did not inform Iridium, it would be guilty of the sin of omission. The government had the ability to act on an injustice, but chose to remain idle.

Russian Space ForcesEdit

The Russian Space Forces neglected a defunct satellite in busy low earth orbit, where many satellites' orbits intersect. They treated space as a dumping ground, with little consideration for others who use this shared space. Iridium 33 was launched by Russia, and therefore Russia was required to register the satellite with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.[11] Interestingly, the country failed to do so and could legally be charged with non-compliance under international law.

Similar ethical casesEdit

The ethical issues posed in the Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251 collision can be generalized in the broader ethical arena. Three cases are considered: space debris, ocean dumping from cruise ships, and Olympic venue abandonment. These issues relate through tragedy of the commons and environmental Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Vast open shared spaces often lead firms to believe they are operating in terra nullius, or “land belonging to no one.” Firms recognize the costs of proper disposal in these spaces are greater than the costs of the individual waste they discharge into terra nullius. But when all firms hold this path dependence, a “fouling of our own nest” occurs through the tragedy of the commons.[12] CSR is when firms go above and beyond the requirements of law and their own interests to do social good and, in these cases, protect the commons.

Olympic venue abandonmentEdit

Olympic committees often make use of temporary athletic venues, similar to how space agencies launch limited-life satellites into orbit. A satellite can be used for ten years and later neglected, much like an Olympic venue is often used for a few weeks during the Games and later abandoned. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground was built on a reclaimed industrial site. Following the Olympic Games, the Beijing Olympic Committee promised the venue would be converted into a "beachside bathhouse".[13] Instead, it was left abandoned and vandalized. Olympic Committees must practice CSR to determine a definitive plan for these venues, otherwise the “temporary” venues of the Sochi Winter games may face a similar fate.

Ocean dumpingEdit

Similar to the spread of space debris into various orbits following a collision, ocean currents allow ocean dumping to affect third parties across the globe. Much like space, the laws surrounding waste disposal in the high seas are ambiguous and ethical boundaries are often crossed. The cruise industry highlights these issues.

The average 3,000 person cruise ship dumps around 21,000 gallons of sewage a day and 8 times more graywater.[14] The International Maritime Organization (IMO) established MARPOL, The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, in 1973. MARPOL is the international law regarding dumping practices, however, there are more stringent laws certain flag-bearing ships need to obey if they are from certain countries.[15] For instance, the U.S. imposes stricter law for ships operating under its flag or in its waters, as outlined in the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972.[16] This poses an ethical quandary for U.S. flag-bearing cruises trying to remain competitive internationally. This was demonstrated in July 1999, when Royal Caribbean was fined $18 million for falsifying records and lying to the U.S. Coast Guard about dumping practices over a ten year period.[17] This fine pales in comparison to Royal Caribbean’s 2001 profits of $1 billion and is less than what the firm would have paid had they disposed the waste legally.[18] Incentives affect behavior when it comes to self-policing operations in the commons, and Royal Caribbean took the easy way out.

Tragedy of the commonsEdit

Satellite owner-operators, cruise liners, and Olympic organizers need to acknowledge their CSR when considering proper disposal of limited-life equipment and waste after use. People and organizations who operate in, and benefit from, a shared space often neglect proper disposal to the detriment of the greater good. Abuse of these shared spaces represent a tragedy of the commons.

Marginal preventative costs now can save companies massive industry-wide monetary and social costs in the long run. Space, the oceans, and public space belong to everyone. It is the ethics of disposal decisions that affect the use of these shared spaces for future generations. Social groups must firmly consider their environmental CSR and ethics to prevent future tragedy of the commons. For Iridium and the Russian Space Forces, such measures could have prevented the collision of two satellites and a massive space debris fallout, which is now the burden of future generations.


  1. "Five key turning points in the American space industry in the past 20 years: Structure, innovation, and globalization shifts in the space sector", Acta Astronautica, Vol. 69
  2. a b c d "Iridium says in dark before orbital crash", Reuters
  3. “Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 three years later: where are we now?”, The Space Review
  4. “How the Iridium Network works”, Global Satellite Communications
  5. “Two satellites collide in orbit”, Spaceflight Now
  6. a b c “Iridium 33/Cosmos 2251 Collision”, Celestrak
  7. a b “Iridium Satellite Update”, Iridium
  8. "Forum on National Security Space Examining Codes and Rules for Space", The George C. Marshall Institute
  9. a b c "Billiards in Space", The Space Review
  10. "Satellite crash prediction is plagued with uncertainty", NewScientist
  11. "Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space", United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
  12. "The Tragedy of the Commons" Science Magazine.
  13. "Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground" Beijing Olympics.
  14. "Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report", Environmental Protection Agency.
  15. "International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL)", International Maritime Organization.
  16. "Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972", Environmental Protection Agency.
  17. "Royal Caribbean to pay record $18 million criminal fine for dumping oil and hazardous chemicals, making false statements, U.S. Department of Justice.
  18. "High Seas Dumping", Prentice Hall.