Many pieces of space junk are very small, but so is a bullet and at 1200 feet per second they are dangerous. Consider that space debris is typically going 17-25,000 mph.
While we hear about earth-based pollution on a daily basis even if only just referring to health effects in major cities, few people realize that outer space, in terms of where our communication, spy, and weather satellites live, is so filled with space junk that it is becoming nearly impossible to find space for new satellites.
Even when a satellite is in a “safe” orbit companies and governments have to constantly monitor old and new space debris to make certain their new satellite is not in its path.
In addition to the cost of such constant monitoring, the need to use very limited amounts of fuel to modify orbits limits the lifetime of new satellites far below that enforced by basic operating fuel.
The use of satellites has revolutionized our world, providing important services like weather monitoring, disaster early warning systems, and global communication networks. However, this burgeoning industry has also generated a significant amount of space debris, consisting of defunct satellites, discarded rocket stages, and fragments from collisions. This debris, traveling at high speeds, poses a significant threat to functioning satellites, potentially causing collisions that could trigger a cascade of debris creation, leading to a theoretical scenario known as the Kessler Syndrome.
The Kessler Syndrome, named after physicist Donald Kessler (https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/astrophysics/donald-kessler-predicts-space-junk/), describes a hypothetical scenario in which collisions between orbiting objects create so much debris that it becomes increasingly difficult to launch or operate satellites, effectively rendering low Earth orbit unusable. While the exact point at which this cascade occurs is a matter of debate, the growing volume of debris and the increasing frequency of satellite launches underscore the urgency of addressing this issue.
Current efforts to mitigate the space debris threat include better tracking of debris, development of satellite collision avoidance systems, and initiatives to deorbit spent satellites and other non-functioning spacecraft in a controlled manner. However, these measures may not be enough to prevent the Kessler Syndrome if the pace of satellite launches continues unabated.
To safeguard our future in space, we need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to space debris management. This includes stricter regulation of space launches, with an emphasis on minimizing the generation of debris and ensuring that satellites are designed for safe deorbiting. We also need to invest in innovative technologies for removing debris from orbit, such as robotic cleanup systems and laser ablation techniques.
International cooperation is crucial in addressing this shared challenge. Establishing global standards for debris mitigation, promoting responsible spacefaring practices, and fostering collaboration in debris removal efforts are essential steps towards protecting our precious orbital space.
(The 2023 Interconnected Disaster Risks report analyses six interconnected risk tipping points, representing immediate and increasing risks across the world. United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security https://interconnectedrisks.org/download )
Satellites have brought immense benefits to humanity, but we must not overlook the potential hazards they pose to our ability to operate in space. By taking proactive measures to mitigate the space debris threat, we can ensure that our reliance on satellites continues to enhance our lives without jeopardizing the future of space exploration and utilization.
What is being done directly?
Very little so far, but there are multiple proposed methods and projects to reduce at least NEO space junk – the most crowded volume of space near Earth.
A Japanese satellite servicing spacecraft, tackles the issue of defunct satellites, which contribute significantly to space debris. Equipped with a magnetic grapple, ELSA attaches itself to the decommissioned satellite and maneuvers it into a lower orbit using a propulsion system. Upon reaching a lower altitude, the satellite’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere causes it to burn up, effectively removing it from orbit.
European Space Agency’s (ESA) ADR project aims to capture and deorbit debris using a specialized spacecraft. The spacecraft employs a net to ensnare the debris and then utilizes a propulsion system to guide it into a lower orbit, where it eventually burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.
NASA’s RDI project uses a laser-based approach to deorbit debris. The spacecraft directs a high-powered laser beam at the debris, causing it to heat up, expand, and generate drag. This drag reduces the debris’s orbital velocity, causing it to descend into a lower orbit, where it eventually burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Indirect Steps – better planning
Satellite operators can play a crucial role in minimizing debris creation by designing satellites to be more resistant to collisions. This includes using stronger materials and incorporating protective shields to withstand potential impacts.
Satellite operators can also implement measures to avoid generating debris in the first place. This involves planning of satellite deployments, ensuring secure attachment of components, and implementing proper disposal procedures for spent rocket stages.
Addressing the space junk issue effectively requires international collaboration. Establishing clear guidelines and regulations for satellite operations and debris mitigation practices can help minimize the generation of new debris and facilitate the cleanup of existing debris.
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) maintains a database of satellite states called the Space Object Catalog, or Space Catalog.
The catalog lists objects that are at least 10 centimeters in diameter – that misses objects the size of a baseball. As of October 21, 2023, the catalog listed 58,010 objects, including 16,645 satellites that had been launched into orbit since 1957. Of those satellites, 8,936 were still active.
The United States Space Surveillance Network’s mission is to detect, track, and identify all artificial objects orbiting the Earth. The network provides data on these objects to a range of users.
The satellite tracking website “Orbiting Now” lists 7,702 active satellites in various Earth orbits as of May 4, 2023. As of April 30, 2022, 3,433 of the 5,465 active artificial satellites orbiting the Earth belonged to the United States. This is by far the largest number of any single country.
Right now the world is treating outer space just like we treated the oceans and the atmosphere, dumping anything and everything into it. Look how well that has worked out for the oceans.
If this doesn’t stop soon eventually we won’t be able to use space for things we really need done like monitoring hurricanes and other catastrophic weather conditions.
Don’t let this challenge pass as the world has failed to meet the Paris Climate Agreement.