The rush for space exploration has created a massive waste problem.
Are you one of those people who go stargazing on clear nights? While you might only see stars shining brightly in the night sky, the infinite space holds a lot more than ethereal beauty and the possibility of aliens. What you may not know is that much like Earth, space also has a waste management problem.
As of 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors have tracked 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, also known as space junk. Let’s take a closer look at what this space junk is and how startups are helping clean up space.
What is space junk?
Orbital debris or space junk consists of any man-made object that no longer serves a useful function in orbit around Earth. Most large pieces of space junk are defunct satellites left orbiting Earth after they fail, come to an end of their lifecycle or run out of fuel. On the amount and size of space junk orbiting Earth, estimates suggest that there are 23,000 pieces the size larger than a softball, about half a million pieces the size of marbles and about 100 million pieces the size of a millimeter.
A hypothesized phenomenon called Kessler syndrome suggests that the amount of junk circulating around Earth’s orbit will collide with each other and create more and more junk, causing a problem for satellites, astronauts and mission planners inevitably. This implies that space junk is a pressing problem that we need to deal with immediately.
Not only can space junk hamper space exploration, but it will also actively increase pollution on Earth. Space junk is often attracted by Earth’s gravitational pull and gets sucked back into the atmosphere. This junk largely falls into the oceans, since they make up a large part of Earth’s surface. An average of one piece of space debris falls onto Earth’s surface every day. While no significant damage has been reported from space debris, people are advised to stay away from them because of the possible presence of hazardous chemicals on it.
Startups eliminating space waste
Digantara is an India-based startup working on a space situational awareness platform for efficient traffic management by helping satellites avoid space debris. This will help mitigate the risk of collisions in the lower Earth’s orbit. Besides being capable of tracking even centimeter-sized space debris, the startup claims that its awareness platform can monitor space weather conditions more precisely than is possible today. As of 2021, Digantara has raised US$2.5 million in seed funding from venture capital firm Kalaari Capital.
OrbitGuardians is a U.S.-based startup that combines computer vision, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT) for cost-effective space debris removal. Using these technologies, the company can track and remove space debris smaller than 20 cm. The company intends to make space travel safer for space workers, space tourists and the operating satellites.
Switzerland-based startup ClearSpace works towards creating technologies to remove unresponsive satellites from space. The company also intends to provide on-orbit servicing facilities so that satellites can be fixed instead of being discarded and collected. In 2020, ClearSpace signed a US$104 million contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to deorbit debris from a Vega rocket. The mission, “ClearSpace-1”, will involve capturing a VEga Secondary Payload Adapter (left behind after ESA’s Vega rocket launch back in 2013) with the ClearSpace-1 robot and forcing it to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere where both the robot and the adapter will be burned off. The world’s first active debris removal mission will be launched in 2025.
The need for larger change
As of 2020, the global space debris removal market size was US$803 million. This sector is expected to grow to US$1.362 billion by 2028. However, the space junk problem is much too big to be solved by companies alone. It requires countries joining the space race to come up with space policies and international standards that support satellite servicing. Thus, in 2021, the G7 countries released a statement saying that orbital debris is one of the biggest challenges facing the space sector.
With the number of satellites in Earth’s low orbit expected to increase from 10,000 to 40,000 by 2030, the challenge of tackling space debris is only going to increase. It would also in turn stimulate an increase in the need for space junk cleanup, making it a lucrative sector for entrepreneurs and investors alike.
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