One of the biggest threats to humankind’s ongoing expansion into space is the spread of debris into low Earth orbit. During a panel discussion at the Ars Frontiers Conference earlier this month, three experts described the problem and identified potential solutions.
Caleb Henry, senior analyst at Quilty Analytics, explained that the debris issue is nearly as old as spaceflight. During the space race of the 1960s, the Soviet Union and the United States often launched rockets without regard to the trajectory of the upper stages.
“When you put things in space, they just don’t disappear, as with most trash,” Henry said. “The waste in space is not biodegradable. The result is that we have tens of thousands of large pieces of debris that are 10 centimeters or more in length. And then, depending on who you ask, there are millions of pieces that are less than 10 centimeters in size, many of them in orbit low ground.”
But in recent years, states have become more responsible for managing their upper stages. So instead of just letting them fly after launch, the fuel is locked up to get them out of their orbit and into Earth’s atmosphere or put into orbits far from the Earth-Moon system. But the debris issue went beyond spent missile stages.
The second factor in the formation of space debris is hundreds to thousands of pieces of debris generated by anti-satellite tests. Russia, the United States, China and India have conducted surface-to-space missile tests to demonstrate their ability to shoot down satellites of other countries. Recently, after a scandalous Russian demonstration In November that threatened the International Space Station, the United States pledged to end such tests and encouraged other nations to follow suit.
On top of this background of the existing debris, there is a new problem. With the rise of broadband internet from low Earth orbit — from existing Starlink and OneWeb groups and upcoming plans from Amazon, Telesat and other companies — the number of satellites in already crowded orbits is expected to grow an order of magnitude or more, said Therese Jones, director of policy at the Association satellite industry.
“We have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of satellites to be launched over the next decade or so.” Jones said. “For reference, there are now about 5,000 satellites in orbit [there will be] An exponential explosion in the number of satellites. And the vast majority of them want to be within 400 to 600 km above Earth. So this area is becoming increasingly crowded.”
A major challenge in managing the current debris, and the upcoming challenge of increasingly crowded orbits, is that each country has its own regulatory environment, and there is little international coordination.
“It’s not just about the technical barriers to removing debris,” said Dave Hebert, Vice President of Global Marketing Communications at Astroscale. “There are political and economic challenges as well. Who is responsible? Who pays? How much are they paying? How are we going to hold people accountable?”
Nominally, the regulation of space debris is governed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. But because this is a consensus-based organization, if Russia, China or the United States doesn’t agree, nothing will happen.
All that is in place now are non-binding guidelines focused on long-term sustainability, Jones said. She commended the Biden administration for taking a stand on anti-satellite tests and called on the US government to take further steps.
“I think the work that the US government has to do on a bilateral and multilateral basis, on the basis of coordination and management, with like-minded countries to get anywhere,” she said. “And once we start getting other countries to sign up, it becomes normal behavior in space that Russia and China tacitly adhere to, even if they don’t sign. So I think that’s where we need to go.”
List of photos by Getty Images
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