Space debris returns to center stage

NASA is funding three studies to search for and analyze orbital debris, says NASA scientist Bhavya Lal

By Kiran N. Kumar

Amid claims China is imposing a new space regime and preventing Beijing and Moscow from exploiting the moon in the future, the US space agency NASA has announced a unilateral decision to deal with the growing crisis in space. space waste.

NASA scientist Bhavya Lal of NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy (OTPS) has announced three studies to search for and analyze orbital debris, bringing the issue of space waste to the forefront among the nations vying for a place in space.

“These awards will fund research to help us understand the dynamics of the orbital environment and show how we can develop policies to limit the creation of debris and mitigate the impact of existing debris,” she said.

Read: American Indian Bhavya Lal leads NASA’s new technology office (November 17, 2021)

However, the problem still remains. Massive orbital debris consists of many man-made objects orbiting the Earth, including mission-related and fragmentation debris, non-functioning spacecraft, and derelict rocket stages.

An estimated 500,000 pieces of debris circle the Earth, posing a hazard to newly launched spacecraft, astronauts and satellites. Occasionally, the International Space Station had to change orbit to avoid space debris.

According to the European Space Agency, more than 170 million pieces of space junk are actually moving around the Earth at rapid speeds of tens of thousands of kilometers per hour.

According to an estimate compiled a few years ago, this orbital junk is moving dangerously at a speed 10 times faster than that of a bullet. Before crashing to Earth, a single collision in space could form thousands of pieces of this high-speed trash.

“That debris can sit up there for hundreds of years,” Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer who works for the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, told Business Insider.

“Countries have learned over the years that when they create debris, it poses a risk to their own systems, just like everyone else,” Ailor said.

Another publication,, offered a chart of the countries with the most space waste in the world as of October 2017, which showed the United States and Russia as the main culprits, followed by China.

Of 6,500 objects found so far, 3,999 traceable space junk in Earth’s orbit were created by US activities, followed by Russia’s 3,961 detectable space junk.

Although new to the space program, China has already closed the gap with 3,475 pieces of space junk, especially after destroying one of its own satellites in an anti-satellite weapons test in 2007.

This highly controversial decision instantly expelled more than 2,300 pieces of traceable space junk into Earth’s orbit. Similarly, the collision of the Russian Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251 satellites created a huge amount of debris earlier.

Read: Is space becoming a battlefield? (September 8, 2022)

Develop Space Debris Destroyers
Now that several space agencies around the world are gearing up to develop spacecraft with a system capable of clearing space debris, Aerospace Corporation, funded by the US government with a development center in El Segundo, California, has developed a “Brane Craft” to wipe up space junk by enveloping debris in orbit and dragging it back into Earth’s atmosphere while burning it.

The craft would be one meter wide, flexible and less than half the thickness of a human hair. “It has to be bulletproof because a particle 5 microns in diameter can penetrate the main structural sheet, which is only 10 microns thick,” said Siegfried Janson, Principal Investigator and Principal Scientist at Aerospace. Corporation in an interview with The company plans to send several Brane craft to burn the waste while returning to Earth’s atmosphere.

A Japanese company, Astroscale, intends to develop a spacecraft that will help remove space debris from Earth’s orbit, named ELSA-d.

“ELSA-d is an incredibly complex satellite as we will demonstrate rendezvous and proximity operations technologies that have never been tested before in space,” said Seita Iizuka, project manager for the mission. revealed two years ago.

Even the University of Surrey’s Remove DEBRIS project in the UK is planning a similar contraption aimed at removing debris from the atmosphere. With SpaceX and a host of other space agencies planning to send tens of thousands of satellites over the next year, cleaning up space junk takes center stage more than ever.

Moriba Jah of the University of Texas, who specializes in orbital debris monitoring, has developed an online graph that tracks near-collisions of space debris and active satellites orbiting Earth in real time.

Known as the Conjunction Streaming Service Demo, using data collected by the US Air Force, the graph shows the distance between objects in kilometers while the X axis measures time. In the graph are colored dots that represent objects hovering around the Earth.

The red dots represent orbital debris while the green ones are still operational satellites. Yellow dots show both satellites and space junk. The lines and arcs connecting the points indicate their movements and their proximity to each other. The graph’s time tracking feature monitors near misses at almost every minute.

“Things are intersecting at very high speeds,” Jah told The Verge. “These things travel really, really fast and are definitely closing in on each other. People need to be aware of that.”

Read: Space debris and manned spacecraft (May 26, 2021)

Currently, there are over two million pieces of space junk of varying sizes orbiting the Earth and 2,000 operational satellites. According to Jah, if nothing is done to solve the current space waste problem or if regulations regarding satellite operations are not established, the space around the Earth will become overcrowded and very dangerous.

“So the bottom line is that there is definitely an increased risk of collision with this increased traffic coming closer together.”

The need for a “space law” unfolds in this context, as does the new “space cold war”.

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