We analyse active space debris removal efforts from a strategic, game-theoretical perspective. Space debris is non-manoeuvrable, human-made objects orbiting Earth, which pose a significant threat to operational spacecraft. Active debris removal missions have been considered and investigated by different space agencies with the goal to protect valuable assets present in strategic orbital environments. An active debris removal mission is costly, but has a positive effect for all satellites in the same orbital band. This leads to a dilemma: each agency is faced with the choice between the individually costly action of debris removal, which has a positive impact on all players; or wait and hope that others jump in and do the 'dirty' work. The risk of the latter action is that, if everyone waits, the joint outcome will be catastrophic, leading to what in game theory is referred to as the 'tragedy of the commons'. We introduce and thoroughly analyse this dilemma using empirical game theory and a space debris simulator. We consider two- and three-player settings, investigate the strategic properties and equilibria of the game and find that the cost/benefit ratio of debris removal strongly affects the game dynamics.
space debris removal empirical game theory tragedy of the commons strategic substitutes