Space debris problem getting worse, say scientists

April 18, 2017
You can't see them but they're up there: Millions of bits of orbital junk are a threat to spacecraft

Scientists sounded the alarm Tuesday over the problems posed to space missions from orbital junk—the accumulating debris from mankind's six-decade exploration of the cosmos.

In less than a quarter of a century, the number of orbiting fragments large enough to destroy a spacecraft has more than doubled, a conference in Germany heard.

And the estimated tally of tiny objects—which can harm or degrade spacecraft in the event of a collision, and are hard to track—is now around 150 million.

"We are very much concerned," said Rolf Densing, director of operations at the European Space Agency (ESA), pleading for a worldwide effort to tackle the mess.

"This problem can only be solved globally."

Travelling at up to 28,000 kilometres (17,500 miles) per hour, even a minute object impacts with enough energy to damage the surface of a satellite or manned spacecraft.

In 1993, monitoring by ground-based radar showed there to be around 8,000 manmade objects in orbit that were larger than 10 centimetres (4.5 inches) across, a size big enough to inflict catastrophic damage, said Holger Krag, in charge of ESA's space debris office.

"Today, we find in space roughly 5,000 objects with sizes larger than 1 metre (3.25 feet), roughly 20,000 objects with sizes over 10 centimetres... and 750,000 'flying bullets' of around one centimetre (half an inch)," he said.

"For objects larger than one millimetre (0.04 inch), 150 million is our model estimate for that."

Risks of collision are statistically remote, but rise as litter increases and more satellites are deployed.

"The growth in the number of fragments has deviated from the linear trend in the past and has entered into the more feared exponential trend," Krag warned.

The conference in Darmstadt, whose opening was broadcast online, is the biggest-ever gathering dedicated to space debris.

Experts will spend four days discussing debris and measures to mitigate space litter such as by "de-orbiting" satellites after their working lives.

Debris fields

Krag pointed to two events that had badly worsened the problem, creating debris fields that may generate further junk as pieces smash into each other.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

The other was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

With enough warning, satellites can shift position to avoid a collision, but this uses fuel and potentially shortens operational life.

ESA receives a high-risk collision alert every week on average for its 10 satellites in low-Earth orbit, Krag said. Each has to resort to "one or two" avoidance manoeuvres per year.

In a message from the International Space Station, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet said the station was shielded for objects up to 1 cm across.

The ISS often has to make manoeuvres to avoid debris, but needs 24 hours' warning to do this, using onboard thrusters, he said.

If there is less time, "our crew will have to close all the hatches and enter the safe haven which is our Soyuz spacecraft so that we can depart the ISS in the case of a collision," he said. "This has happened four times in the history of the ISS programme."

Space junkyards

Experts pointed to two once-pristine sites that have become worryingly cluttered since the space age dawned in 1957.

One is low Earth orbit—generally defined as less than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Earth—which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China's manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, a coveted zone 35,000 km (22,000 miles) away used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.

The trash ranges from fuel tanks and Soviet-era nuclear-powered satellites, dripping sodium and potassium coolant from decrepit hulls, to nuts, bolts and tools dropped by spacewalking astronauts.

The items ironically include a 1.5-metre (five-feet) debris shield that floated off as it was being installed on the ISS on March 30. Lost in low orbit, the shield will eventually be plucked into Earth's atmosphere and burn up.

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9 comments

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2017
For his next trick musk ought to build an orbital multipurpose laser platform capable of providing power and propulsion for probes and spacecraft as well as deorbiting debris.

I would think there is a lot of govt and private money to be had.
42-is-the-answer
not rated yet Apr 18, 2017
10 cm is not 4.5 inches. It's circa 3.94 inches.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2017
They should just put up a big directable, electrostatic net and "go fishing"...
Of course, they might pick up a few working ones...
It's all pretty much orbiting in the same direction, right?
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2017
They should just put up a big directable, electrostatic net and "go fishing"...
Of course, they might pick up a few working ones...
It's all pretty much orbiting in the same direction, right?
You understand that this would be like fishing the entire atlantic and pacific combined right? To a depth of a few hundred miles?
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2017
They should just put up a big directable, electrostatic net and "go fishing"...
Of course, they might pick up a few working ones...
It's all pretty much orbiting in the same direction, right?
You understand that this would be like fishing the entire atlantic and pacific combined right? To a depth of a few hundred miles?

So then... Even with a big net it might take a while...;-)
And apologies. I think I might have 1ed instead of 5ed your first comment.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Apr 18, 2017
You understand that this would be like fishing the entire atlantic and pacific combined right? To a depth of a few hundred miles?

So then... Even with a big net it might take a while...;-)
And apologies. I think I might have 1ed instead of 5ed your first comment.

Nope, it was George who did that...
Urgelt
5 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2017
I like Otto's idea. Equip a satellite with sub-millimeter radar to detect orbiting debris, calculate the orbit, line up a shot to puff a bit of vapor off of one side of the debris to add eccentricity to its orbit, let the atmosphere snag it at perihelion. Might have to line up multiple shots to get some of that debris deorbited.

I have no idea if it's practical, but if there's an engineering crew capable of inventing the thing, it's probably at Space-X.

The problem with schemes requiring a spacecraft to maneuver to rendezvous with debris is fuel. Changing orbits requires a lot of it. With the laser scheme there's no need to maneuver much - let the debris come into range, calculate and zap it. It might work.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Apr 18, 2017
Well its not my idea, lots of google refs on ground and orbital systems. But i havent seen anything on a general purpose platform that could be contracted to do different things on different scales.

A commercial setup might alleviate fears that a govt would use it as a weapon.

A laser could deorbit 1000s of objects a day. A solid state phased array could operate with no moving parts and multitask.
RZ49
not rated yet Apr 20, 2017

A commercial setup might alleviate fears that a govt would use it as a weapon.


Yeah i doubt that, the only way i see is an autonomous system which would bring other topics with it..
Earth based systems are currently being examined on their capability to remove space debris.

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