Before humans first began sending objects into Earth’s orbit, the pocket of space around our planet was clear and clean. But the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957 changed everything. Since then, space debris has accumulated, with the number of useless, non-existent satellites significantly exceeding the operational objects in our orbit.
A new annual report from the European Space Agency (ESA) found that although we have recognized the problem and taken steps to mitigate it in recent years, these steps are not currently in line with the enormous scale of space debris.
All space states have contributed to the problem, which is important: as more and more non-existent objects inhabit outer space, the risk of a collision increases ̵
The dangers have been noticeable in the last year. Not only have we seen two large dead satellites nearly collide, but the International Space Station has had to make emergency maneuvers three times to avoid a collision with space debris.
But clashes are not even the biggest problem, according to an ESA report. In the last 10 years, collisions have caused only 0.83 percent of all fragmentation events.
“The biggest contributors to the current space debris problem are orbits in orbit caused by the remaining energy – fuel and batteries – aboard spacecraft and rockets,” said Holger Kragg, head of ESA’s Space Safety Program.
“Although measures have been in place for years to prevent this, we do not see a decline in the number of such events. Discharge trends at the end of the mission are improving, but at a slow pace.”
The problem of space debris was first raised in the 1960s, but it takes a long time to mitigate and implement mitigation measures. Now space states are much better at planning what happens to satellites and rockets in end of their missions.
Reusable missiles are great, although the technology is still in its infancy. For decades, rocket accelerators were simply allowed to recede after delivering their payload into low Earth orbit. Some of these discarded boosters have been there for decades.
Other mitigation measures include the design and construction of spacecraft that can better withstand the harsh space environment without disintegrating; release of stored energy and fuel to make non-functioning spacecraft less likely to explode; and once the spacecraft’s mission is complete, move it to a safer orbit.
This would mean either a “graveyard orbit” high above the low Earth space used for operational spacecraft, or lowering it into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn when re-entering as a clean discharge system.
But even with the implementation of these measures, 12 fragmentation events have taken place every year for the last two decades. This number is increasing, with each fragmentation event potentially bringing thousands of small fragments into Earth’s orbit. At orbital speeds, even the smallest pieces of debris can deactivate a working satellite.
According to ESA’s statistical model, there are over 130 million pieces of anthropogenic space debris smaller than a millimeter. The only way to hopefully do something about it is to work together.
The good news is that the last decade has seen an increase in the number of space nations that follow international guidelines. Those who do not meet the orbit guidelines are increasingly complying with space debris mitigation measures.
But the way we use space is changing. Satellite swarms, small salsas and “constellations” are becoming more common. SpaceX’s StarLink alone has placed hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit. So, says ESA, more important than ever is that everyone is working together to keep our little corner of space as clean as possible.
“The accelerating increase in satellites launched into low Earth orbit is clearly visible in our latest report,” said Tim Florr, head of ESA’s Space Waste Office.
“In order to continue to benefit from the science, technology and data that space exploitation brings, it is vital that we better align with existing space waste reduction guidelines in the design and operation of spacecraft. Not enough emphasis can be placed on – this is essential for the sustainable use of space. “
ESA is actively working on solutions. He has commissioned a project to try to collect space debris, and proof of concept is scheduled to be released in 2025. They are also trying to develop technology to automate collision avoidance maneuvers so that human controllers do not need to track and control any equipment or decommissioned satellite in low Earth space.
And measures such as space resilience ratings can help countries develop space technology by providing a baseline to follow.
“Space debris poses a problem for the near-earth environment on a global scale, to which all space states have contributed and for which a solution can only be answered by a globally supported solution,” ESA wrote in its report.
You can read the full report here.