We have a space debris problem. Here’s how to solve it

Space Debris ESA

Debris objects in low-Earth orbit (European Space Agency, 2008).

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Nikolai Khlystov, Community Lead, Aerospace Industry; Co-Lead, Global Future Council on Space Technologies, World Economic Forum

The first Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, crashed on 1 April over the Southern Pacific, after uncontrollably re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

In fact, the station most likely all but burned up on re-entry, ironically very close to the location called ‘spacecraft cemetery’, where space agencies purposefully guide their old spacecraft to crash as it is the most isolated location in the ocean.

The Chinese authorities lost contact with the station back in 2016 and could not guide it since then.

Tiangong-1 is one example of space debris that ended up coming back to Earth and burning up, just like most other debris that re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. That is not a bad thing.

But large quantities of space junk end up staying in various orbits around Earth, threatening satellites, the International Space Station (ISS), as well as future missions beyond Earth’s vicinity – to asteroids, the Moon and Mars.

Somewhat similar to pieces of tyres that litter the highways on Earth, debris can be parts of old satellites, from paint chips, to bolts, larger sections, and entire defunct satellites; it can also include spent rocket bodies, the sections of rockets that don’t fall back to Earth after a rocket’s launch. The total number of debris pieces larger than a marble counts more than half a million.

Image: NASA

The key difference is that while it would be dangerous for your car to hit a piece of garbage on the highway at 100 km/h, in orbit, things are moving at the much faster speed of 28,000 km/h – the speed required by the laws of physics for objects to stay in orbit and not fall back to the ground.

At that speed, even a small bolt could destroy an entire satellite, or even endanger the entire Space Station. That is the reason why astronauts or cosmonauts on board the ISS have to huddle into the escape capsules several times a year, when a piece of debris is being tracked close to the Space Station. Currently only the Russian Soyuz offers a way of getting to and from the ISS for humans.

The most polluted orbits in general are considered to be those between 200-2000 km above Earth (Lower Earth Orbits or LEO), and the 36,000 km orbit (Geosynchronous).

This is a growing issue, which has become more widely known to the public through the movie ‘Gravity’.

Out-of-control space junk in LEO orbit – the so-called Kessler Syndrome – in real life would not be quite as dramatic as in the movie; however, it does pose a serious and an ever-growing threat, nonetheless.

There are two key elements to addressing this global risk.

First, we need to start removing the most volatile and biggest pieces from the most congested orbits.

A number of companies, such as Astroscale and Saber Astronautics, are looking at this very complicated and technical solution already. The idea is essentially to grab a piece of debris with a special satellite and de-orbit both of them, in the process burning up both objects above the aforementioned ‘spacecraft cemetery’.

Other technologies include moving objects with a powerful laser beam. It is important to start doing that soon – current scientific estimates predict that without active debris removal, certain orbits will become unusable over the coming decades.

Though it is hard to capture objects that are moving as fast as this debris, it is certainly possible. After all, spacecraft dock with the ISS all the time.

The bigger issues are financing and international cooperation. The question of who pays for these ‘garbage collection’ missions is a tricky one. Perhaps even trickier, is negotiating the international diplomatic space and persuading, for example Russia, that their old military satellite needs to be de-orbited by a technology company.

Image: Reuters

The second part of the puzzle to ensure the long-term accessibility of orbits is to adjust our current behaviour in space in order to minimize the creation of new debris. We need to be more careful with existing operational satellites and new missions.

The UN guidelines on space debris mitigation are among the key international efforts to get different actors to follow proper rules of the road, but they are voluntary.

There are over 1,500 active satellites in various orbits, but this figure is set to grow dramatically over the coming years.

Large constellations that number hundreds and thousands of satellites, such as OneWeb and SpaceX, are being developed currently (mostly for LEO orbits), and promise to provide affordable connectivity to all parts of the world.

New governments are also entering the race to get access to space. The question is, with such an increase in traffic, how do we get all the private and public actors to think more sustainably?

The Global Future Council on Space Technologies is working on an industry framework to incentivize private actors to step up their act. Other efforts are needed.

Orbits are a critical part of the Earth environment, a global commons just like the oceans, and we need to protect this resource for future generations.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Featured Stings

Do academia and banks favour a new Middle Ages period?

What the world will look like after the Iran and 5+1 deal; the US emerges as major power broker in Middle East

Impressive African health gains at risk from changing trends: WHO report

Τhe EU Refugee Crisis: a day in the life of a Refugee in Greece

Lithuania should find its own way in the EU

ECB embarks on the risky trip to Eurozone banking universe

Senior UN children’s advocate says they ‘should never be targeted by violence’

RescEU: MEPs vote to upgrade EU civil protection capacity

‘Habitual residence’ rules deprive EU workers from social benefits

Is this the way to finally beat corruption?

Three ways the Fourth Industrial Revolution is shaping geopolitics

Why the World Cup is a bit like international trade

Security Council downsizes AU-UN mission in Darfur, eying eventual exit

iSting: a reader’s thoughts on the UN Environment Assembly 2017

UN says ‘many humanitarian achievements’, one year after ouster of ISIL from Mosul

Scotland and First Minister Salmond enter the most challenging battlefield for independence: Europe

One in three fish caught never gets eaten

Europe turns out more jobs this summer

5 charts that explain big challenges facing Italy’s new government

The cost of healthcare is rising in ASEAN. How can nations get the most for their money?

Technological innovation can bolster trust and security at international borders. Here’s how

What options the new President of Ukraine has?

Will Western Balkans respond positively to EU initiatives?

A Sting Exclusive: “Delivering on the Environmental Dimension of the new Sustainable Development Agenda”, Ulf Björnholm underscores from UNEP Brussels

Chart of the day: This is what violence does to a nation’s GDP

Can the Americans alone determine the future of Syria?

Brexit Update: EU endorses unprecedented compromise to help Cameron out of the referendum mess he got himself into

Russia and the West to partition Ukraine?

Bram in Colombia

Commission’s Youth Initiative fails first hurdle by not sufficiently consulting young people

Five years down the drain

The Brussels bureaucracy blocks the Youth Guarantee scheme

“Fortress Europe”, “Pegida” and its laughing stocks

Unlock the value proposition for Connected Insurance

The Brits are not an exception and that’s why they voted to leave

Crimean crisis: not enough to slow down European indices

My Mothers

Germany readies to pay for the Brexit gap in EU finance

EU Commission announces Safe Harbour 2.0 and a wider Data protection reform

Fostering global citizenship in medicine

Yanis Varoufakis: “Unsustainable debt turns the creditor into Leviathan; Life under it is becoming nasty, brutish and short”

Germany to help China in trade disputes with Brussels

Here’s how data could make our cities safer

Bugged Europe accepts US demands and blocks Morales plane

The banks first to benefit from the new euro trillion ECB plans to print

Zuckerberg preaches that Artificial Intelligence will protect Data Privacy in Facebook whereas Verhofstadt demands the big European state to take charge

A Sting Exclusive: “Youth voice must be heard in climate change negotiations!”, Bérénice Jond Board Member of European Youth Forum demands from Brussels

‘Laser-sharp focus’ needed to achieve Global Goals by 2030, UN political forum told

A few, or rather two, trade and economic alliances may rule our brave new world

Alexandre in Czech Republic

These countries are all building brand-new cities

EU accused of being too nice with Gazprom in the infamous antitrust case

Parliament: Last compromise on bank single resolution mechanism

Lack of investment and ambition means Youth Guarantee not reaching potential

Top UN political official updates Security Council on Iran nuclear deal

Debunked: 5 myths about the future of work

European Business Summit 2014: The role of youth entrepreneurship education in EU’s Strategy for Competitiveness

A day in the life of a Rohingya refugee

EU opens a third antitrust file against Google

EU budget: Will Germany alone manage Britain’s gap?

More Stings?

Trackbacks

  1. […] We have a space debris problem. Here’s how to solve it  The European Sting […]

  2. […] […] We have a space debris problem. Here’s how to solve it The European Sting […]  The European Sting […]

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s