Space junk: Why it’s everyone’s problem
Estimates by statistical models early last year show that there are over 34,000 debris objects in orbit that are larger than 10cm in size, 900,000 that are between 1cm and 10cm and 128 Million between 1mm and 1cm!
Space junk, also called space debris and space garbage, refers to human-made objects in outer space — usually in the Earth orbit — that no longer serve any purpose. These objects typically come from satellites and spent rocket stages as well as the fragments from their disintegration, erosion and collisions. They also include non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.
With the space industry experiencing exponential growth over the course of the last few decades (coming from the increased number of launches), the amount of junk floating in outer space is enough to draw valid concern from analysts. This figure is touted to total around 8,000 tonnes, made up of thousands of defunct satellites as well as hundreds of thousands of smaller objects that are currently impossible to assess in definite terms due to their minute size.
The main concern with an increasing amount of junk floating around in outer space are in the imminent collisions that may occur with existing satellites, causing catastrophic damage. The potential harm that may arise is exacerbated by the fact that these pieces of debris travel at breakneck speeds of over 17,000 mph, which is approximately 10 times the speed of a bullet. To confound matters further, one single crash could create even more debris, causing a much greater chance of more collisions in the future.
The issue of responsibility
There have been several incidents across the span of the last few decades that have raised eyebrows within the space community, posing questions on the legal responsibilities that nations have when it comes to the creation of space junk. One example of this was China’s 2007 anti-satellite test (ASAT), where it blew up one of its own weather satellites. Aside from causing considerable global military tension, the space industry was also concerned that the mission left behind more than 2,000 new debris elements of trackable size in low-earth orbit.
Regulations surrounding the dumping of junk are far hazier in outer space than they are on Earth, with space debris mitigation not being explicitly addressed in the five United Nations (UN) treaties that deal with outer space and related activities across the sphere.
That being said, a practical interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty shows that it is the duty of all nations involved in space exploration to do their part to mitigate debris, since it can hinder their right to freely explore and use outer space. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space also encourages all space participants to refer to its Debris Mitigation Guidelines that provides valuable strategies for the reduction of debris release during normal operations.
Joint tracking efforts between government bodies and private enterprise
Efforts to track space junk have been made on both the government agency as well as private enterprise front.
According to their website, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) conducts measurements of the orbital environment and implements mitigation measures to protect the users within it. The programme is aimed at creating an improved understanding of the orbital debris environment and measures that can be taken to control debris growth.
On the commercial front, companies such as LeoLabs are monitoring up to 250,000 dangerous objects smaller than 10 centimeters (4 inches) wide that orbit Earth. This data will be key in assisting satellite operators and government agencies to avoid catastrophic collisions during their endeavours in outer space.
Technological advancements to reduce orbital debris
The space industry has responded appropriately to growing concerns of increased debris floating in outer space, coming out with solutions that promise to solve the issue.
The European Space Agency (ESA), commissioned the world’s first space debris removal program in late 2019. The initiative named ClearSpace-1 will help establish a new market for in-orbit servicing, as well as debris removal by launching the world’s first orbiting junk collector, a four-armed robot that tracks down space waste like Pac-Man in a maze, by 2025.
A harpoon developed by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, England, has also proven to clean-up orbital traffic lanes, collecting dead satellites and rockets and driving them back into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.
There has also been a myriad of proposed solutions made by private companies to solve space debris issues that could be rolled out over the span of the next several years. One such enterprise has a plan to work with governments and businesses to build a retrieval mechanism within a spacecraft before a launch. If the satellite fails prematurely, an Astroscale spacecraft would launch to intercept the defunct satellite and dispose of it.
The issue of space junk is one that SpaceChain is constantly aware of. We strongly advocate for standard practices in dealing with deorbiting satellites and embrace any further advancement in technologies to deal with this problem.