Space Junk: The Growing Threat to Our Satellites

admin November 4, 2021
Updated 2021/11/05 at 6:03 AM

A Chinese military satellite (Yunhai 1-02) seemed to disintegrate spontaneously in orbit in March, leaving a trail of debris far above the Earth. It was recently discovered that the satellite was destroyed after colliding with debris from a Russian rocket launch in 1996. It was the first significant collision in Earth orbit since 2009.

What exactly is Space Junk?

It’s the stricken and undesired spacecraft that have been left behind in Earth’s orbit’s restricted space. There are now about 100 million particles of space trash circling the Earth. Despite the fact that the great majority of the hunks are the size of sand grains or smaller, at least 26,000 of them are large enough to kill a satellite.

What is the most serious issue with Space Junk?

More governments and corporations are prepared to send more items into orbit than ever before, thanks to cost-cutting improvements in rocket and satellite technology. Currently, there are about 4,000 functioning satellites in orbit; this number might increase to more than 100,000 in the next years. The possibility and risk of a collision is rapidly increasing as more organisations seek access to orbit for research and commercial objectives. Each collision would create debris, increasing the likelihood of additional collisions. The consequence may be a thick ring of space debris that renders some low-Earth orbits useless. Their scientific operations might potentially be hampered by space debris (including the threat posed to astronauts aboard the International Space Station). As Earth orbit becomes a more vital battlefield for military competition, there’s a chance that crashes will be misconstrued as anything more than an accident. Recognizing the importance of the problem, NASA established the Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) to address it.

What was the result of the ODPO?

The organisation published the world’s first debris-mitigation rules in 1995. It recommended that satellites be constructed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years of mission completion, among other things. Other spacefaring nations, as well as the United Nations, followed suit with their own set of rules. But, partially because the world had not yet seen a devastating collision between spacecraft and debris until 2007, urgency and compliance were missing. China launched a ballistic missile at one of its older weather satellites in 2007, resulting in the biggest cloud of space debris ever seen. Later that year, a non-functional Russian communications orbiter collided with a working Iridium Satellite orbiter, resulting in almost 2,000 pieces of debris with a diameter of at least 4 inches. The situation has only become more perilous since then.

So, what are the options?

To combat the problem of space debris, countries must work together. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was established with minimal participation from China during a previous space competition, needs to be revised. Provisions that provide governments permanent property rights to their objects in space, in particular, may make attempts to clear up trash more difficult. Next, Nasa should support research on debris-removal technologies—such as those recently demonstrated by Astroscale, a Japanese startup—and consider forming partnerships with firms that are developing them. The US should also try to extend the Artemis Accords, a space cooperation framework that now comprises 11 countries. Debris-mitigation standards, such as a need to indicate which country is responsible for end-of-mission planning, should become standard as additional countries participate.

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