Space Debris Could Be the End
by Marilyn Wolbert | published Mar. 18th, 2021
Though often neglected, space debris is becoming ever more prominent as we continue improving, exploring and launching past our atmosphere. There is an immense amount of material whipping around the planet at insane speeds — causing danger to both current and future satellite operations.
According to multiple sources, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), a total of about 4,600 launches had occurred before 2008 placing nearly 6,000 satellites into orbit. Of these spacecraft, only 800 are still operational today. This means that 85 percent of the bodies sent up into orbit do not even serve a function to us anymore here on Earth.
Debris larger than four inches tally about 22,000, those between 0.4 and four inches number 500,000 and those below 0.4 inches are well into the millions.
Just to give you an idea, in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) these objects can reach 21,600 miles per hour. Something as small as a paint chip could cause quarter-sized holes in functioning satellites, space stations and other orbital debris.
Thomas Hall, a fifth year Computer Science student, spoke on the dangers of this debris and why something needs to be done to stop it.
“Think like a ball bearing, you can hold it in the palm of your hand, it might not seem dangerous,” Hall said. “A ball bearing traveling at orbital speeds, possesses about the same energy as an SUV going 70 mph [on Earth].”
What's the Big Deal?
Many may be thinking that something so far away couldn’t affect the average person. Does something over 2,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth matter?
In short — yes. Many do not realize the giant web of modern day necessities that satellites and spacecraft provide and have provided for years now. From television and internet, to GPS and weather reports, man-made satellites provide an intense amount of luxuries that most would be lost without.
Satellites are the reason we are able to communicate globally and instantly today. They are used to monitor the climate, which is how we can predict hurricanes, earthquakes and many other natural disasters. They are even used heavily in the military.
Evan Putnam, a recent graduate of Computer Science at RIT and current employee at Raytheon Intelligence and Space, speaks on the importance of public knowledge.
“You see hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites being launched into orbit each year and people seem to rarely speak out about the issues associated with putting this much stuff up there,” Putnam said.
Hall was on the same page, emphasizing that the public relies a lot more on space technology than we may think.
“You and me and everyone else, our lives are enabled by the infrastructure that we have in space,” Hall said.
Without this infrastructure, we would be a lot more in the dark.
The big worry with the amount of orbital debris being hurled around our atmosphere is the increasing possibility of collisions. With millions of pieces of debris, the probability is extremely high. In fact, it happens all of the time.
Astronauts have stated that they hear items hit the International Space Station quite often — and it’s terrifying. Currently, these impacts are almost always from small fragments of debris.
This being said, larger collisions do occur.
A prime example of one of these larger collisions was on Jan. 11, 2007 when China destroyed one of its old, futile weather satellites with a ballistic missile. This singular antisatellite missile test caused clouds of over 3,000 traceable fragments of detritus, and many more untrackable debris that increased that amount by 25 percent.
On Feb. 10, 2009, a commercial and Russian military satellite collided due to tracking issues causing another detrimental amount of debris.
"A ball bearing traveling at orbital speeds, possesses about the same energy as an SUV going 70 mph [on Earth]."
There is fear that instances such as these could cause a catastrophic chain of collisions that could render the space around our Earth, unescapable, unstoppable and incredibly dangerous. This theory is known as the Kessler Syndrome, where the density of objects in LEO is high enough that there will be an uncontrollable chain reaction of destruction of all man-made objects in that orbit. Kind of like the movie Gravity, but a little less sci-fi ... and without George Clooney.
“One could calculate the amount of debris it would take to start a chain reaction ... they could turn a whole orbit unusable and potentially alter our ability to launch spacecraft,” Hall said.
How Are We Fixing this?
Many startups have taken on the challenge of removing space debris from orbit.
Companies like Astroscale, which is one of the larger known startups, has created a satellite to help remove currently dead satellites. These forms of post-operational removal are known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) systems and target tracked satellites or debris that no longer serve a purpose.
“I remember reading about one student at another university, by the name of Amber Yang,” Putnam said, “who was working on machine learning models to try and predict potential collisions that might occur with existing debris, so that they could be targeted for removal.”
Alongside these startups and individuals, the ESA have started their own ADR initiatives which include ideas such as a harpoon and a large net to capture debris.
“You and me and everyone else, our lives are enabled by the infrastructure that we have in space."
Companies are also implementing End of Life services to new spacecraft and satellites. This means that these objects must have a plan for deorbit. In some cases, this includes incorporating enough fuel to push itself into a graveyard orbit, for others it’s launching into the inner circles of LEO so that the craft can burn up in the atmosphere much sooner.
Still, as we continue working together and as the access to space increases, so does the detritus.
Starlink, which intends to send up 12,000 satellites (double the amount that have ever been sent into space), is a prime example of this. This endeavor as well as others such as Project Kuiper by Amazon, are huge causes for concern.
Who knows what an additional 15,000 satellites in our LEO could do ... perhaps we are a lot closer to cataclysm than we may think.