The US is getting serious about space junk

The US government is taking legal steps to limit the amount of space junk – the cloud of dangerous debris still in Earth’s orbit – after more than six decades of space races, rocket launches, planetary missions and a boom in activity satellite.

The most important measure is that the Federal Communications Commission last week imposed a five-year life cycle for new satellites after they complete their mission, by which time they must disintegrate and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Previously, a 25-year lifespan was in place as a guideline, but was never legally enforced.

The new rule only applies to satellites launched by US operators, and will not solve the space debris problem by itself. But experts agree that it is a good start in line with international efforts.

“It’s about establishing rules for space and having a legal framework that people have to abide by,” said space debris expert Carolin Frueh, an associate professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. . “That’s a big step.”

Earth’s orbital space is vast, with only about 5,000 active satellites. But it is estimated that there could be millions of pieces of space junk orbiting our planet – from complete rocket stages, which can weigh several tonnes, to inactive satellites, lost pieces of space equipment, stray nuts and bolts, and the broken fragments of the orbit. collisions.

Most of those pieces are tiny – smaller than a nickel. But they are orbiting at more than 15,000 mph, and experts estimate that about 30,000 pieces of space junk are big enough and fast enough to be a serious problem – and could be a disaster.

There have already been some close calls. In June the International Space Station changed its orbit to avoid debris from a Soviet-era satellite blown up in a Russian test of a new anti-satellite missile. So far the ISS has had to orbit space debris more than 30 times during its 23-year mission. It was also damaged by space junk, and on another occasion the ISS crew was ready to leave in the event of a collision.

Artist’s rendering of debris and satellites orbiting Earth. (NASA)

And the problem will get worse. One report estimated that there will be around 10,000 pieces of more dangerous space debris in orbit by the end of this century.

“Space debris is not yet at the point where we can’t do more space missions,” said Thomas Schildknecht, professor of astronomy at the University of Bern in Switzerland and director of the Zimmerwald Observatory. “But the risk is increasing, and if we don’t pay attention, then in 10 years from now we’ll be at the level where we can’t do anything.”

Schildknecht’s team has been tracking the most dangerous pieces of space debris for several years and now uses lasers to track their trajectories. In addition to predicting dangerous collisions, astronomers use their database to schedule observations when their view is not obstructed by stray space debris.

“We get precise information so we can notify the astronomers when something is flying by, so they can choose their observing times a little differently,” he said. “It’s already a problem.”

Schildknecht’s database is one of the sources consulted by commercial space firms such as COMSPOC, a Pennsylvania-based company that offers, among other things, to keep satellite operators informed of any threats in their orbit, to -includes space debris, so they can avoid them if possible. .

The company’s chief scientist, Dan Oltrogge, said he welcomes the FCC’s new five-year life cycle and thinks it could be even stricter.

He noted that the rule will not affect new constellations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink — a network of thousands of satellites to provide internet almost anywhere in the world — because those satellites are in low orbit. already and that they are expected to de-orbit after some time. year.

“They’re showing that not only should you do it in five years, you should be much better than that,” he said.

Many experts think that the only solution to the space waste problem is to send up robotic spacecraft to collect it and dematerialize it for good.

Japanese startup Astroscale took a simulated piece of space junk in a test last year and has a deal with satellite constellation operator OneWeb to defrag its satellites.

In 2019, the European Space Agency selected the private company ClearSpace to remove objects from orbit using a robotic spacecraft with large claws. The on-orbit tests are expected to begin in 2026.

And Starfish Space, a Seattle startup, is developing a space shuttle called Otter to service satellites in orbit and push space debris into low orbit where it will fall to Earth. The company expects to launch by 2024.

Such proactive measures are also central to a bill for the ORBITS Act that would require NASA and the space industry to explore new solutions to space junk problems.

Purdue’s Frueh suggested another solution to the problems of space debris is not to leave waste in orbit in the first place.

“We definitely need to move towards active participation,” she said. “But it will not be an individual measure. … We also need to design our missions with space debris issues in mind, and bring things down as soon as possible after a mission is completed.”

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