Chemistry and Physics

Cleaning Up Our Space Junk

Pictorial representation of planet earth surrounded by thousands of satellites in low earth orbit
Rian Patel

Space is a fabric with many colours and quirks. Lighting up an otherwise black abyss, stars shine light that reflects off planets, moons, and even our tiny satellites and telescopes that we launch beyond our atmosphere. Everything in space is out on show. Yet with our naked eyes, standing on our blue planet, we are detached from anything beyond the blanket of our blue sky. All the variety of space seems so distant. But there is a sustainability problem, which is both invisible to our unaided eyes, and not that distant at all. That problem is termed ‘Space Junk’.

Space debris, more popularly known as space junk, is a cosmic assortment of objects of all sizes trapped in an orbit around the Earth known as ‘Low Earth Orbit’ (LEO). Like a cage of machinery, encapsulating the Earth, there are an estimated 129 million objects bigger than 1mm, classed as debris in LEO (as of February 2020). This number represents anything from disused and dead satellites from previous decades, to cameras, gloves, nuts, and bolts that are lost remnants of spacewalks and once heralded space missions.

Just the thought of our humanmade mechanical waste, not floating, but hurtling in a stable orbital speed of up to 18,000mph above us is unsettling. Even scarier is that the International Space Station (ISS) and many active satellites used for observation and communication exist in LEO.

“Collisions give rise to more debris and lead to more collisions, in a chain reaction”

Just last month, the ISS was forced to manoeuvre for a third time this year to avoid collision with a space junk object. The shear speeds of orbit for both the ISS and space junk mean an impact could threaten life for or, at the very least, disrupt the astronauts and their research.

Former NASA scientist Donald Kessler came up with the idea, coined ‘Kessler Syndrome’, that “collisions give rise to more debris and lead to more collisions, in a chain reaction”. The result of this could render Earth’s orbit unusable and a wasteland of astronomical proportions. Trapped on Earth, our ability to launch new satellites or explore the cosmos would be crippled.

Our satellites are worth protecting from this problem. They allow us to have communication, ease in navigation, and they help keep businesses and our transactions running smoothly. They are our robotic backbone to a functioning, seamless society. And they do more. Monitoring our weather patterns, they help us predict incoming natural disasters. They gather data about climate, and emissions in a climate change conscious world. And they will do more.

The UK government awarded £1 million in government funding to seven companies last month that aim to address the problem of space junk

Recently, we have seen SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, a ‘mega constellation’ of thousands of satellites, launched to provide high-speed internet across the globe. Thousands more objects in LEO spells trouble. Last September, the European Space Agency (ESA) had to manoeuvre one of its satellites, to avoid SpaceX’s mega constellation. It is unusual for active satellites to be manoeuvred, but evidently necessary to avoid a collision.

Our dependency on satellites to improve and keep our society functioning means that it is unforeseeable that they will be stopped from launching any time soon. This means we are limited to addressing the repercussions of having more objects in LEO. But there are no international laws addressing the problem of space junk. While this is a global issue, countries and companies are taking steps to tackle it in their own ways.

The UK government awarded £1 million in government funding to seven companies last month that aim to address the problem of space junk. Several of these companies aim to improve imaging of space junk. They are variously looking to increase speed of imaging, develop algorithms to create a warning system using live imaging, and are working to improve characterization of satellites and space debris. One company, Fujitsu aims to prove that removal of space junk can be commercially viable, incentivising companies to do more about the issue.

Tracking and imaging is not the only thing that is set to be improved. Technologies and ideas to remove existing space junk are in the works too. In December 2019, ESA awarded funding to the Swiss company ClearSpace for its Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission ClearSpace-1. It aims to a retrieve junk from LEO, using ‘robotic pincer’ type technology, which is reusable. Then, it will give the junk a controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to decompose safely and away from life.

Cubesat being deployed

A CubeSat being deployed. Credit: NASA

An American company Nanoracks, aims to create a cutting tool that will cut metal in space in a way which produces no unintended additional space junk. A Japanese company Astroscale, has a working solution called ‘End-of-Life’ (EOL), that aims to make satellites more sustainable before launch so that they do not become harmful space junk when they are out of use or fail to launch successfully. They propose adding a docking plate that would remove them from orbit.

Smaller objects, such as tiny as flecks of paint, pose a great threat too

The University of Surrey’s RemoveDEBRIS launched in 2018 to the ISS using Nanoracks’ service and a SpaceX rocket. It consisted of a CubeSat which launched a net to entangle space debris, the footage being described as ‘part technical study, part space ballet’. Harpooning debris was also trailed.

There are many innovative sparks flying to try and grapple with the space junk problem. No wonder, as this sustainability issue poses a threat to our satellites and our increasingly technological way of living. More satellites and probes will continue to launch and contribute to a new space infrastructure. Having defunct satellites like Vanguard-1 in LEO since the 1960s will only hamper our developments and aspirations for the future of space and society.

Smaller objects, such as tiny as flecks of paint, pose a great threat too. As they zoom at their speeds above us, they make us realise the daunting prospect of being trapped on our planet entirely. Trash, rubbish, garbage is all easy to throw away on Earth. It’s time we start dealing with it in space as well.

Rian Patel

Featured image by Hopeful in NJ from Flickr. Image licence found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre from Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

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