Since the 60s, the majority of satellites launched into space have successfully fulfilled their tasks with new technology improving the services which they offer. Unfortunately since the first satellite was launched a number have been lost due to malfunctions or accidents and several are still out there, no longer fulfilling any mission yet still occupying the space. Add to this the tanks that helped to put them in orbit and other devices and leftovers of space mechanisms and we have a growing problem.
While space exploration has never been associated with tiny spaces, one clumsy and even embarrassing realization is how cluttered we made the one near our planet. Today, no one can be certain that equipment launched into space won’t encounter debris while in orbit – this is a very dangerous event to leave to chance. One tiny element of space debris could literally bring down a multi-million dollar satellite or a spacecraft!
Space junk is causing major problems already
Space junk, or satellite debris, refers to the array of different leftovers from missions, whether it be from shuttles or satellites. Their size is drastically different, ranging from components as big as a rocket part to ones as small as shards of peeled walls. According to NASA and ESA, over 170 million “visible” pieces are present in our near space and the undetected parts can be as lethal as the detectable ones. All these objects orbit at high velocity around our atmosphere, estimated to be 8km/s, and are still orbiting within the same area as most of the man-made space infrastructure sent up over the years.
Satellites are being lost to debris
This is dangerous and potentially disastrous: in fact, according to the Space Environment Research Center in Australia, three to four satellites are lost to space debris collisions each year. According to NASA, if the problem is left unsolved it could take just 5 to 10 years to lose all working devices in orbit. The reason lies in the orbital velocity at which debris move, making any collision with other bodies equivalent to the explosion of a hand grenade. Moreover, smaller debris have a more vicious impact and the damage they cause can be lethal and unpredictable. Crack propagation, if caught at an early stage, can be dealt with, but on many occasions the cracks are invisible to the naked eye and their propagation is often sudden and can wreck the orbiting structures.
This will not only result in the destruction of satellites and other space equipment but also create additional space junk and disruption to many vital services on Earth. It could also impact the International Space Station and jeopardize the lives of the astronauts, the works conducted and the wealth of data and equipment gathered there. The ISS can be manoeuvred out of the way of debris (but this is only possible for detectable debris) although because the detection happens on Earth this can impact vital reaction time. If the debris isn’t detected the results could be catastrophic. There are several records of debris colliding with satellites which could give us a taste of what might become a common occurrence unless the issue is resolved. The most documented case is the Iridium and Kosmos collision during 2009 resulting in the loss of one satellite due to an old dead one.
Tracking space junk is impossible
Many argue that if orbits are carefully tracked, and calculated, collisions can be avoided which is indeed what we are relying on at the present time. However, this solution is flawed: of the detectable parts of space junk only 22,000 are tracked, leaving the small pieces unmonitored and other sizeable ones roaming the orbits. Moreover, the science of orbits is not exact and we can’t track with great precision the orbits, nor accurately map out every satellite in space.
Future regulatory structure
The other solution that is taking time to set up is a regulatory structure covering defunct satellites and their providers. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee is still working on detailed rules but to this day it only has general guidelines. These include the requirement to return space devices to Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years of their operational lifetime and relying on operators to push their satellites out of the orbits of debris.
Finally, several agencies have stepped in to come up with key technologies that aim to tackle the space junk problem in the longer term. ESA is granting funds to universities and research centers to design effective debris removers with Singapore and Japan investigating ways to force the debris back into the atmosphere (where it would simply burn up). NASA has been researching the use of lasers to eliminate the space junk from Earth and the Swiss government is also investing a large amount of money into this area, looking to create a niche market for Swiss operators.
Problem of space debris is reaching crisis point
However, all of these endeavors are taking time and the earliest date for prototyping and testing is 2019. It may sound like a fairly short timescale for modern technology but the issue is now reaching critical and there is no guarantee that a working system will be available in 2019. While some countries can afford to lose a satellite or two, most can’t, and it is not just a matter of funding: countries such as New Zealand and Australia rely heavily on satellites for basic tasks and survival. A disruption in their satellites will have a harsher impact than just disrupted phone services.
All relevant experts need to actively work together on this issue and press for regulations that deal with the life cycle of satellites and other equipment used in space. The design of future space equipment such as satellites should incorporate a way to dispose of them when they have served their purpose. However, it’s not the defunct satellites that are the major concern at the moment, it’s the smaller debris and the unpredictability of their orbit.