Tackling the growing problem of space debris

Human beings are responsible for some of the most destructive acts on Earth.

For the last 60 years, homo sapiens have also been expanding their communications, meterological forecasting and navigational…


Human beings are responsible for some of the most destructive acts on Earth.

For the last 60 years, homo sapiens have also been expanding their communications, meterological forecasting and navigational capabilities through launching satellites into orbit. But along with all the technological progress comes an ever increasing problem – space junk.

With more and more countries now launching their own space programmes and an increasing number of satellites leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford talked to some of the companies who are trying to clear up the mess during World Space Week

The scale of the problem is “pretty humungous,” according to Dr Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency: “There could be 100 and 60 million individual pieces of debris up there in total. And certainly about 900,000 bits that are greater than one centimetre in their longest dimensions. That’s pretty pretty astounding and rather worrying, isn’t it? So this is all come from years of sending things up to space and not getting them burned off somewhere or bringing them back.”

More than 23,000 satellites being launched into space in the next five to ten years

As we come to rely on satellites for vital services, the scale of the issue is only set to get bigger as technology develops, according to Luca Rosettini, CEO of space service provider D-Orbit.

He said: “We are now seeing hundreds of small companies willing to launch in space hundreds and thousands of small satellites generating service for internet, Internet of Things that observation. Imagine that in the next five to 10 years, more than 23,000 satellites planned to be launched in space. And this number is growing while we are talking about these new satellites.”

Risk to satellites and services is growing exponentially

The risk to satellites and the services they provide is growing exponentially as even the smallest fragment could bring down a satellite or even the International Space Station

Holger Krag said the consequences of collisions could lead to failure of systems on Earth. “One Iridium satellite collided with fragments of an out of service Russian satellite in 2009. It was estimated that the impact speed was at 45,000 kilometres per hour, In turn that sent thousands more pieces of debris into the key orbit area.”

Krag added that one the biggest fears of those working to solve the issue was of a “cascading effect where one collision triggers the next one. He added: “This is no anything that will happen within a microsecond like in the movie Gravity. But this is something that will set in slowly, hardly noticeable, but unstoppable. And over decades, the frequency of collisions might increase without human influence. That is a scenario that might render some regions in space unusable for spaceflight and that will be disaster for spaceflight.”

UK funding announced to develop hazardous space debris

Last month, the UK government, through the UK Space Agency, announced funding that seven UK-based companies would be developing new sensor technology and artificial intelligence to monitor hazardous space debris, paving the way for an out-of-this-world clean up operation.

The UK has already committed £10 million to the European Space agency’s ADRIOS programme to clean up space debris and the latest funding sees companies like Lift Me Off developing and test machine learning algorithms to distinguish between satellites and space debris, while D-Orbit will use a space-based sensor on their recently launched satellite platform to capture images of space objects and couple this with Passive Bistatic radar techniques.

Methods of collecting space junk using a harpoon or net have already been trialled to tackle the growing problem, which Dr Chris Bunskill, Head of Space Programmes at D-Orbit, said needed to be addressed now for the industry to work in a sustainable manner.

He said: “By being proactive today, and taking advantage of national strategy to keep the space environment safe and usable for everyone, it will position the space sector much more effectively, to address this issue and to manage this issue in a sustainable and safe way in the future.”

Many of the services we take for granted in our everyday lives could be disrupted due to the growing problem. Holger Krag of the European Space Agency concluded that it’s in everyone’s interest that the problem is tackled quickly

“Use of services from spaces is in everybody’s interest, mitigating the problem of space debris should be in everybody’s interest as well, because we have generated a global problem that can only be solved on a global scale. It needs a global response. “


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