A new annual report from the European Space Agency (ESA) found that we are aware of the problem and have taken steps to mitigate it in recent years, but that these steps are currently not keeping up with the volume of space debris.
All space travel nations have contributed to the problem, which is significant: As more and more non-existent objects populate near-earth space, the risk of collision increases – which creates even more space debris when objects crash and break.
The dangers were particularly pronounced last year. Not only did we watch two large dead satellites almost collide, but the International Space Station had to perform emergency maneuvers three times to avoid colliding with space debris.
However, according to the ESA report, collisions are nowhere near the biggest problem. In the past 10 years, collisions were responsible for only 0.83 percent of all fragmentation events.
“The biggest contribution to the current problem of space debris is orbit explosions caused by residual energy – fuel and batteries – on board spacecraft and rockets,” said Holger Krag, head of ESA’s program for space security.
“Although steps have been taken to prevent this for years, we are not seeing a decrease in the number of such events. The trends for disposal at the end of the mission are improving, but only slowly. ”
The causes of fragmentation events over the past decade. (ESA)
The space debris issue was first addressed in the 1960s, but it took a long time to identify and implement mitigation measures. Space nations can now plan much better what happens to satellites and rockets at the end of their missions.
Reusable missiles are a big deal even though the technology is still in its infancy. For decades, rocket boosters simply had to drift away after putting their payloads into low-earth orbit. Some of these discarded boosters have been around for decades.
Other mitigation measures include designing and building spacecraft that can better withstand the harsh environment of outer space without disintegrating. Release of stored energy and fuel to reduce the risk of broken spacecraft exploding; and once a spacecraft’s mission is over, move it into safer orbit.
This would either mean a “cemetery orbit” high above near-Earth space used for operational spacecraft, or bring it into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn as a proper disposal system upon reentry.
But even with these measures, there have been 12 fragmentation events every year for the past two decades. That number is increasing, with each fragmentation event potentially introducing thousands of small pieces of debris into orbit. At orbital speeds, even the smallest pieces of debris can deactivate an operational satellite.
According to the ESA statistical model, there are over 130 million anthropogenic space debris that are smaller than a millimeter. We can only hope to do something about the problem by working together.
The good news is that over the past decade, the number of space nations complying with international guidelines has increased. Those who do not conform to orbit guidelines are increasingly adhering to space debris mitigation measures.
But how we use the space changes. Satellite swarms, smallsats and “constellations” are becoming more and more common. SpaceX’s StarLink alone has put hundreds of satellites into low-earth orbit. According to ESA, it is more important than ever that everyone works together to keep our little corner of the room as clean as possible.
“The accelerated increase in the number of satellites put into low-earth orbit is clearly visible in our latest report,” said Tim Florer, director of ESA’s space debris office.
“In order to continue to benefit from the scientific knowledge, technology and data that comes with operating in space, it is important that we better adhere to existing guidelines for reducing space debris in the design and operation of spacecraft. This cannot be emphasized enough – this is essential to sustainable use. “Space.”
ESA is actively working on solutions. It has commissioned a project to try to collect space debris. The proof of concept is scheduled to start in 2025. They’re also trying to develop technologies to automate collision avoidance maneuvers so that human controls don’t track and have to control every device or decommissioned satellite in near-earth space.
And measures like a space sustainability rating can help nations develop space technologies by providing a basis for compliance.
“Space debris is a global problem for the near-earth environment, to which all space travel nations have contributed and for which only a globally supported solution can be the answer,” wrote the ESA in its report.
You can read the full report here.
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