Space Junk – The Predator of Satellites

World Space Week, which commenced on the 4 October 2022, is focused on sustainability and space, and therefore BlytheRay evaluates the space junk problem; what it is, why it matters and how it’s being solved.

The Problem

Since the beginning of space exploration, space debris, aptly named ‘space junk’, has been building up in Earth’s low orbit. Consisting of rocket parts, dead satellites, and pieces of hardware, NASA believes that there are roughly 34,000 pieces of junk bigger than 10 centimetres and 128 million smaller pieces floating in space. It is the smaller pieces that are the most dangerous as they travel up to five miles per second in orbit and collide into other pieces of debris and active satellites.

Why is this a problem?

Aside from colliding into active satellites and the International Space Station (“ISS”), endangering those onboard, there is a build of junk that is ever increasing. Satellites and the ISS are having to make hundreds of manoeuvres every year just to avoid colliding with the junk, and these don’t always work. Last March, a Chinese satellite broke up when a piece of space debris collided with it, further increasing the junk in space.

It has become such a problem that Wing Commander Thom College, station commander at RAF Flyingdale, declared that ‘space is becoming congested’.

Space congestion by space junk is not a new phenomenon either. In 1978, Donald J. Kessler came up with the Kessler Syndrome, a scenario in which the amount of debris in space collides with other debris, creating a chain reaction that leads to a build-up of space junk and becomes too big to deal with, rendering Earth’s orbit unusable.

This is the possible scenario that we face today.

So, what can be done?

The Solution

With 2,000 satellites orbiting Earth, which are used for the essential needs of modern life, there is a pressing need to safeguard the space environment. The United Nations has asked companies and space agencies to remove their satellites within 25 years of the end of their mission. The strategies the companies came up with involve, claws, nets and harpoons to drag the debris into the atmosphere to burn up, as well as using lasers to zap the junk away.

Having seen how pressing the issue is, the UK aims to be the leader in space junk removal with the UK Space Agency committing £102 million over three years to deliver capabilities to reduce the debris in space.

The UK has awarded £2.25 million to the Swiss Company ClearSpace to design a device to use four arms and ‘hug’ the debris and pull them down. Their design phase is expected to last until October 2023.

Another company that has received funding from the UK is Astroscale Ltd which has been awarded £1.7 million to design a satellite servicer that can remove multiple retired and defunct satellites in a single mission. In 2021, the company tested its magnetic capture and Remote Proximity Operations capability in-orbit during the End-of-Life Services satellite mission. Astroscale hopes to launch its End-of-Life Services Mission by late 2024.

Perhaps by late 2024 to 2025 we might be able to see the first space junk removal mission, and therefore the first step towards cleaning Earth’s low orbit.

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