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.