How Do Leaders Deal With Space Debris?

If existing debris isn’t cleared to prevent further accumulation, collisions are likely to grow exponentially.

For centuries, stargazers have marveled at complex constellations, glimpses of comets and the steady phases of the moon. But in the 60 years since humankind first breached Earth’s atmosphere, the sky has become crowded by something less exciting: space junk.

Currently, at least 25,000 objects — spent rocket boosters, defunct satellites and tiny fragments of various missions — are hurtling around the Earth, some at speeds of five miles per second. Frequently increasing, debris is crashing into other debris, creating still more debris and putting still-functioning equipment in harm’s way.

If existing debris isn’t cleared to prevent further accumulation, such collisions are likely to grow exponentially. The resulting buildup makes orbiting conditions hazardous, threatens the lives of astronauts and endangers valuable tech and research. Entire orbits could possibly be polluted and made unusable.

Space leadership needs to prioritize this issue to ensure the safety and sustainability of the space economy for future generations, but it will require large-scale collaboration coupled with a heavy dose of innovation.

A Shared Mess, A Shared Responsibility

Recent high-profile collisions have drawn attention to experts’ concerns about space debris. In 2009, Iridium-33, a communications satellite, crashed into the defunct Kosmos2251. The impact created more than two thousand trackable fragments, although some burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. In 2021, debris generated by a Russian anti-satellite test caused the crew onboard the ISS to shelter in capsules in case they needed to evacuate. They emerged unharmed, but earlier in the year, a piece of debris pierced a five-millimeter-wide hole in the thermal covering of one of the ISS’s robotic arms.

From paint fragments or school bus-sized boosters, space junk in low Earth orbit poses a nearly incalculable risk to decades of research and exploration efforts. As satellite megaconstellations like SpaceX’s Starlink continue to launch, that risk looms greater than ever. Full disclosure, SpaceX has been a client of Voyager Space.

Darren McKnight, a senior technical fellow at LeoLabs recognizes the need to address this challenge. He says it will take leadership, but asks why we can’t cooperatively clean up what we cooperatively messed up.

Solutions In Space

Debris concerns led multiple organizations to release a Space Industry Debris Statement in 2021, pledging their commitment to reducing debris and safeguarding Earth orbits, ensuring sustainability and safety for future generations.

The signatories include Airbus and Lockheed Martin among many other prominent names in space manufacturing and travel. Contrastingly, past commercial missions left objects like dummy payloads drifting without plans for retrieval.

Some signatories brainstormed solutions with The Global Future Council on Space, suggesting a unified traffic management system to prevent collisions, agreeing upon a sustainability policy upheld by all stakeholders, and creating end-of-life removal technology for decommissioned satellites and other debris.

The ESA is already working to clean up low Earth orbit, where debris poses the greatest threat. The agency selected Swiss company ClearSpace to receive a $104 million contract to capture and deorbit large debris. ClearSpace-1, scheduled to launch in 2025, will operate as a claw, according to Chief Engineer Muriel Richards.

“The object will be tumbling,” Richards says. “You maneuver to match the velocity of your object, slow down the tumbling, and capture. Then you put yourself in a trajectory that comes back down into the atmosphere.”

Bringing objects into Earth’s atmosphere will allow them to burn up or land harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean. Another company, Astroscale, is working on a similar project. In connection with the U.S. Space Force’s Orbital Prime program, Astroscale is developing a spacecraft called the ELSA-d to meet tumbling objects in space, which it will then grab using a powerful magnet.

Other plans involve sending objects further into a “graveyard orbit,” where they cannot interfere with the majority of space travel and existing satellites or telescopes. This requires additional fuel after a mission’s primary task is completed. Some engineers hope larger objects, like scrapped rocket bodies, can be repurposed into small-scale space stations. Marshall Smith, senior vice president at Nanoracks, a company owned by Voyager Space, believes this may be a cost-effective way to handle debris. They’re currently researching how welding works in space so that an orbiting “scrapyard” of materials could be put to use without needing to return to Earth.

As for smaller objects, like ones that have already damaged the ISS, the onus is still on operational spaceships and satellites to navigate away from potential impacts. Limiting the creation of more tiny debris is also crucial. On Earth, this means global collaboration between nations and private actors. A repeat of the Iridium incident or an anti-satellite test needs to be avoided at all costs.

Some companies are even partnering with the World Economic Forum to create the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR), expected to launch in early 2022. Any organization that submits a voluntary form about its sustainability efforts during a mission will receive a score based on the mission’s debris mitigation approach, measures taken to avoid collisions, alignment with international guidelines, and more. We hope the SSR will encourage less waste and greater transparency throughout the industry.

A Call for Immediate Action

If the world goes about “business as usual,” the ESA says we risk seeing the Kessler Syndrome play out in real time. Named after Donald Kessler, a former NASA scientist, the term describes a potentially catastrophic domino effect (similar to the fictional debris storm in the 2013 sci-fi Gravity).

“Satellite collisions would produce orbiting fragments, each of which would increase the probability of further collisions, leading to the growth of a belt of debris around the Earth,” Kessler wrote in 1978. “The debris flux in such an Earth-orbiting belt could exceed the natural meteoroid flux, affecting future spacecraft designs.”

Facing this challenge is a matter of saving lives and money. Additionally, it can promote a more robust space economy. Novel tools for sanitation and collision-avoidance purposes, like the ELSA-d or ClearSpace-1, will need to be maintained indefinitely, and taking responsibility for debris will reassure satellite manufacturers, commercial astronauts and space organizations alike of the safety of space travel. Clearing our clutter thus demonstrates the industry’s commitment to sustainability and paves the way for future space-based endeavors.

Originally published in Newsweek.