The problem of Earth’s orbital debris is getting worse and policy solutions are difficult

Dave Hebert, Caleb Henry, Therese Jones and Eric Berger in Ars Frontiers 2022 on the growing problem of orbital fragments. Click here to transfer.

One of the greatest threats to humanity’s continued expansion into space is the proliferation of debris in the Earth’s low orbit. During a discussion at the Ars Frontiers conference earlier this month, a trio of experts outlined the problem and outlined possible solutions.

The issue of debris is almost as old as spaceflight, explained Caleb Henry, senior analyst at Quilty Analytics. During the Space Struggle in the 1960s, the Soviet Union and the United States frequently fired rockets without considering the orbit of the upper echelons.

“When you put things in space, they don’t just disappear, as they do in most trash,” Henry said. “Garbage in space is not biodegradable. The result is that we have tens of thousands of large pieces of rubbish 10 cm or more. And depending on who you ask, there are millions of pieces that are less than 10 cm in size. Many of them are low. earth orbit “.

In recent years, however, nations have become more responsible for managing their higher stages. So instead of just letting them fly after a launch, the fuel is trapped to drain them into the Earth’s atmosphere or to put them into orbit away from the Earth-Moon system. However, the issue of debris has gone beyond the stages of used missiles.

More problems

A second factor in creating space debris is the hundreds to thousands of debris generated by anti-satellite tests. Russia, the United States, China and India have tested surface-to-air missiles to demonstrate their ability to shoot down satellites of other nations. Recently, following a blatant Russian demonstration in November that threatened the International Space Station, the United States promised to end such tests and encouraged other nations to follow suit.

Over this background of existing debris, there is a newer problem. With the rise of broadband Internet from Earth’s low orbit – from existing Starlink and OneWeb constellations and future plans from Amazon, Telesat and other companies – the number of satellites already in full orbit is projected to increase by an order of magnitude or more , said Therese Jones, senior policy director at the Satellite Industry Association.

“We have tens, if not hundreds, thousands of satellites launching over the next decade or so.” said Jones. “For reference, there are currently 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 400 to 600 kilometers above the Earth. “Thus, this area is becoming more and more congested.”

A major challenge in managing existing debris, and the impending challenge of increasingly congested trajectories, is that each nation has its own regulatory environment and there is minimal international coordination.

Any solutions?

“It’s not just the technical barriers to debris removal,” said Dave Hebert, vice president of global marketing communications at Astroscale. “There are also political and economic challenges. Who is responsible? Who pays? How much do they pay? How do we hold people accountable?”

By name, the regulation of space debris falls under the auspices of the United Nations Commission on the Peaceful Use of Space. But because it is a consensus-based organization, if Russia, China or the United States do not agree, nothing will happen.

All that exists now are non-binding guidelines that focus on long-term sustainability, Jones said. He praised the Biden administration for its stance on anti-satellite tests and called on the US government to take further action.

“I believe that the work really needs to be done by the US government on a bilateral and multilateral basis, in terms of coordination and management, with like-minded countries to get anywhere,” he said. “And as soon as we start getting other countries to sign up, then it becomes a normal behavior at a time when Russia and China are tacitly committed, even if they do not sign. So I think we should go there.”

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