Space Trash is a Problem that Shouldn’t be Ignored
By Andrew Rummens
At the start of 2019, there were 4,987 satellites in Earth’s orbit, spinning around the planet at 17,500 miles per hour.1 Of these nearly 5000 satellites, only 1,957 are currently active.2 This means that there are 3,030 unoperational satellites in orbit, many of which have lost communication with Earth and cannot be remotely controlled by ground control operators. These unoperational satellites present a dangerous and complicated problem as a potential collision with these satellites could wreak havoc on space infrastructure.
The Kessler Syndrome, first theorized by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, is a potential collision of space debris in low earth orbit, resulting in a self-sustaining domino effect of more collisions. Similar to how the syndrome was portrayed in the 2013 film Gravity, the shrapnel from the initial collisions would continue to strike more space debris, shredding satellites and trash into smaller and smaller shrapnel. The result would be an environment in which hundreds of thousands of high speed shredded space debris hurdles around low earth orbit, endangering potential space travelers and preventing any new satellites from being placed in space.3 This would threaten satellites used for communication, GPS, and weather tracking, as well as other vital purposes, potentially crippling global networks and disrupting economies.
While the potential for a nightmare scenario like this exists, there are potential solutions. One solution proposed by NASA is to use lasers to vaporize the debris.4 Stationed in orbit, these solar-powered lasers would identify space debris – some as small as 10cm (about 4 inches) – and vaporize them with short-wavelength energy beams.5 A second solution proposed by researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory Plasma Physics Division and Naval Center for Space Technology includes deploying a satellite to release small particulates and dust slightly above low earth orbit projected down toward space debris that would come into contact with the debris, increasing drag on the debris and pushing them down into the atmosphere.6 The particulates and the debris would burn up during reentry.
Private companies also have an interest in cleaning up space debris, as the Kessler Syndrome threatens billions of dollars worth of equipment and investment. A third solution proposed by Airbus and Houston-based company NanoRacks includes using a robotic arms, harpoons, and nets to capture space debris and redirect their path into the atmosphere, where they will burn up during reentry.7 This system has already been tested and shows promise.8 With Amazon, Facebook, and SpaceX aiming to install arsenals of satellites in low-orbit to provide high-speed internet around the globe, ensuring the atmosphere remains free from dangerous debris is critical to the future of space ventures.
If humans want to continue to be able to access GPS, track the climate, access global communication networks, and travel to space to conduct scientific research, cleaning up space debris is an important challenge for humanity to conquer. Our potential to branch out further into space as our technology continues to improve should not be restricted by cluttered skies.
“How Many Satellites Orbiting the Earth in 2019? | Pixalytics Ltd.” 2019. Pixalytics Ltd. January 22, 2019. https://www.pixalytics.com/satellites-orbiting-earth-2019/.; “Do ALL Satellites Have to Fly at the Same Speed so Not to Leave Their Orbit? | How Things Fly.” 2013. Si.Edu. January 17, 2013. https://howthingsfly.si.edu/ask-an-explainer/do-all-satellites-have-fly-same-speed-so-not-leave-their-orbit. ↩
“How Many Satellites Orbiting the Earth in 2019? | Pixalytics Ltd.” 2019. Pixalytics Ltd. January 22, 2019. https://www.pixalytics.com/satellites-orbiting-earth-2019/. ↩
La Vone, Michelle. 2013. “The Kessler Syndrome Explained.” Space Safety Magazine. 2013. http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-debris/kessler-syndrome/. ↩
Choi, Sang, and Richard Pappa. n.d. “Assessment Study of Small Space Debris Removal by Laser Satellites.” Accessed June 7, 2019. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20120009369.pdf. ↩
IBID, pg. 1 ↩
Parry, Daniel. 2012. “NRL Scientists Propose Mitigation Concept of LEO Debris.” News. June 20, 2012. https://www.nrl.navy.mil/news/releases/nrl-scientists-propose-mitigation-concept-leo-debris. ↩
Pultraova, Tereza. 2018. “1st Satellite Built to Harpoon Space Junk for Disposal Begins Test Flight.” Space.Com. Space. June 22, 2018. https://www.space.com/40960-removedebris-space-junk-cleanup-test-flight.html. ↩
Pultarova, Tereza. 2019. “Watch a Satellite Fire a Harpoon in Space in Wild Debris-Catching Test (Video).” Space.Com. Space. February 18, 2019. https://www.space.com/space-junk-harpoon-removedebris-satellite-video.html. ↩