Orbital Fallout: Navigating the Growing Crisis of Space Debris

Navigating the Growing Crisis of Space Debris

How are we addressing the neglected crisis of our accumulating contributions to the orbital junkyard?

Ever since we stepped into the space age back in the 1950s, we’ve been busily sending rockets and satellites up, up and away, painting our mark way beyond our planetary borders. But here’s the thing—our ventures have left the cosmos littered with about 2,000 operational satellites and another 3,000 that are just space junk now. This accumulating space debris is not only cluttering space but also increasing collision risks and raising concerns about the environmental sustainability of our space exploits.

These out-of-service satellites are more than just cosmic litter. They’re potential hazards, ramping up the risk of in-space collisions and putting a crimp in our plans for future space adventures. Grasping the real danger that space debris poses to both the universe and life here on Earth is crucial. It’s not just a side issue anymore; it’s a critical problem that needs immediate, well-informed action.

To better understand the complexities and ramifications of this dilemma, let’s begin by defining what space debris actually is and examine its origin, its impacts and the proactive solutions being developed to address it.

What is space debris?

Defined by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, space debris refers to non-functional, human-created objects orbiting the Earth or re-entering its atmosphere, including obsolete satellites, discarded rocket stages and remnants from various space missions. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), this term also includes natural meteoroids in addition to human-made orbital refuse.

Space debris continues to orbit Earth until it re-enters the atmosphere, degrades due to the extreme conditions of space, or is deliberately retrieved. Objects in lower orbits might re-enter within a few years, burning up before reaching the Earth’s surface. However, debris situated at altitudes above 36,000 kilometers may remain in orbit for centuries or even millennia.

Given this enduring presence, understanding how we accumulate and manage space debris becomes critical to the longevity of our space endeavors.

The accumulation and management of space debris

As per a research paper published in 2021, since 1957, around 6,000 rockets have been launched, deploying over 11,300 satellites, out of which approximately 4,000 remain operational. The remainder contributes to the growing amount of space debris, which poses significant hazards as it continues to orbit the Earth. The diversity in size and altitude of these pieces necessitates advanced tracking systems for effective monitoring and collision prevention.

NASA characterizes space debris as ranging in size “from a school bus down to a grain of sand”. The ability to track these objects depends on both their size and orbital altitude, i.e., their height above the ground. As outlined by the European Space Agency (ESA), the routine measurements undertaken by the space surveillance systems of the U.S. and Russia enable the tracking and cataloging of objects larger than 5–10 cm in low orbit and larger than 0.3–1.0 m at geostationary orbit altitudes—36,000 km above the equator.

While such capabilities facilitate the identification of space debris, ensuring the continual integrity of these objects is challenging. Over time, they may disintegrate, complicating monitoring and mitigation efforts.

Rising contributors to space debris

With the challenges in monitoring and mitigation, identifying the primary contributors to the increasing volume of space debris becomes essential. Recent years have seen a surge in man-made space debris, primarily due to the rare but impactful collisions between operational or defunct satellites and the conduction of anti-satellite tests by countries including the U.S., China and India. These tests involve intentionally destroying a country’s own satellite using kinetic-kill models, where a space object, such as a ballistic missile or drone, is navigated to collide with a designated orbiting satellite, resulting in the destruction of both entities.

The underlying motives for these tests are often multifaceted, ranging from demonstrating technological prowess and political dominance to the strategic disablement of an adversary’s satellites and communication networks. However, the ongoing militarization of space contributes significantly to space debris, complicating the tracing of the origins of these fragmented remnants.

For instance, India’s “Mission Shakti”, conducted on March 27, 2019, and China’s destruction of its Fengyun-1C weather satellite on January 11, 2007, both generated extensive clouds of debris of varying sizes. This increasing accumulation of debris not only intensifies spatial congestion but also poses substantial risks to life on Earth due to the potential impact of falling objects.

Impacts of space debris on life on Earth

Potential collisions with operational satellites

The most immediate concern regarding space debris is its potential to collide with active satellites crucial for communication, navigation, weather forecasting and scientific research. Such collisions can lead to the destruction of these satellites and generate more debris, initiating a cascade effect known as the Kessler Syndrome. This phenomenon increases the likelihood of subsequent collisions, risking the viability of certain orbits.

Hazards to human spaceflight 

Space debris poses a substantial risk to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) or engaged in other space missions. The risk isn’t solely quantified by the amount of debris but also by its orbital altitude. Debris at higher altitudes becomes more challenging to retrieve and creates obstacles for space exploration by interfering with existing satellites, potentially endangering future missions.

Space debris reentry risks

Large debris poses the risk of reaching Earth’s atmosphere or its surface. Although most objects burn up upon reentry, fragments could potentially land in populated areas, posing a threat to both people and property.

Environmental impact and long-term sustainability

The continual accumulation of space debris poses a sustained environmental risk. The combustion of defunct satellites in the atmosphere can release chemicals harmful to the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Beyond defunct satellites, the deployment of mega-constellations can also alter the composition of the upper atmosphere. A study published in May 2021 in Scientific Reports by researcher Aaron Boley highlighted concerns regarding the aluminum used in the construction of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. He pointed out that during combustion, this aluminum transforms into aluminum oxide or alumina. Boley underscored alumina’s potential to deplete ozone and alter the atmosphere’s capacity to reflect heat, raising critical concerns about the environmental repercussions of space endeavors.

Strategies for space debris mitigation

As the old saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure.” The escalating risk posed by space waste has amplified the importance of strategic intervention and preventive actions to circumvent potential collisions. Here’s a glimpse at some innovative approaches to monitoring and mitigating orbital debris:

Computer modelling

Dr. Hugh Lewis, a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southampton, has developed a computer model that utilizes statistical data to simulate potential future collisions and debris creation. This model, incorporating data from various space agencies, renders detailed representations of low Earth and geosynchronous orbit regions, allowing for a comprehensive analysis of object behaviors and collision probabilities. Since 2004, the UK Space Agency has been leveraging this technology to understand the potential impacts of new space systems on their orbital surroundings.

The Space Fence surveillance system

The-Space-Fence-surveillance-system
The Space Fence—developed by the U.S. Air Force Space Command on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands
Image Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

The Space Fence, developed by the U.S. Air Force Space Command and built by Lockheed Martin, is a highly advanced space surveillance radar system designed to track multiple objects simultaneously and instantaneously determine their orbits. 

Positioned in the Kwajalein Atoll, thousands of miles away from Hawaii, it employs a cutting-edge S-band phased-array radar system, which operates at higher frequencies, allowing for the detection of smaller objects as compared to the previous systems. It emerges as an essential component within the extensive space surveillance network, generating swift alerts if any space debris poses a collision threat to critical space infrastructure, such as the ISS or satellites.

In simpler terms, it acts like a highly advanced watchtower in space, keeping tabs on space objects and debris and ensuring the safety and integrity of our space-based assets.

ClearSpace-1: The space claw

space-claw
The ClearSpace-1 mission
Image courtesy of European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA)’s initiative, ClearSpace-1, slated for a 2025 launch, aims at active debris removal by capturing and directing it toward Earth’s atmosphere for combustion. This approach is crucial for mitigating risks associated with long-lasting debris in higher orbits, ensuring safer space exploration conditions.

ELSA-d: Magnetic debris removal

Magnetic-debris-removal
Illustration of the ELSA-d mission
Image courtesy of Astroscale

Japan-based Astroscale’s ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration) employs a pair of spacecraft utilizing magnetic technology to capture orbital debris securely. Launched on August 25, 2021, this initiative marks significant progress in enhancing our capability to interact with and secure objects in space safely.

Conclusion

The issue of space debris, often overshadowed by the triumphs of space missions, demands urgent attention and responsible action from nations and corporations alike. The vastness of space may create an illusion of unlimited dumping grounds, but the consequences of neglecting this issue could be catastrophic. 

The future of space exploration mandates a paradigm of responsibility and stewardship. Nations and corporations must take conscientious steps to ensure the sanctity of our cosmic environment, committing to clean orbital practices and the prudent management of space assets.

As Ted Muelhaupt of the Aerospace Corporation succinctly puts it, “Get out of orbit when you’re done.” Our space endeavors should illuminate the universe with knowledge and wonder, not shadow it with our abandoned remnants.

Also read: 

Header Image Courtesy of Earth.org

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