- The term “space debris” refers to defunct human made objects which are moving in orbit around earth. It includes big and small things like discarded boosters, retired satellites, leftover bits and pieces from spacecrafts, screwdrivers, tools, nuts, bolts, lost gloves, flecks of paints etc.
- There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris that are larger than 5-10 cms and can be tracked and catalogued. There are hundreds of millions that we cannot because of their small size. They are all dangerous as thy are moving at very high speeds.
How are Space Debris created?
- Breakup of older spacecrafts: For e.g., breakup of US’ spacecraft called USA 109 in 2015, created 100 debris pieces and 50,000 shards larger than 1 mm.
- Accidently left-over objects
- Testing of Space Weapons
- For e.g., China’s testing of A-SAT missile in 2007 created more than 34,000 debris.
- Further breakup of space debris: More debris increase the chance of collision – a cascade effect known as the Kessler Syndrome. The fear is that the space could eventually become inoperable.
- Mega constellations (e.g., Starlink satellite internet constellation) would launch thousands of satellites in coming years and would make space more vulnerable to collision and debris creation.
Key Concerns Raised by Space Debris
- Endanger the prospects for Space Missions (Civilian, Commercial or military)
- They are so fast moving that a fleck of paint can cause a crack in ISS.
- Already instance of near-collision and maneuvering to avoid collisions have been noted. In 2019, European Space Agency (ESA) moved its earth observation satellite to avoid it colliding with Starlink satellite.
- Sometimes crash land on earth harming life and livelihood of people
- Recently parts of Zenit rocket debris are reported to have ended up crash-landing in Peru.
Key Steps being taken
- Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) is an international government forum, founded in 1993, for the global coordination on the issue of man-made and natural debris in space.
- ISRO is a member of the coordination committee along with other major Space agencies like NASA, ROSCOSMOS, ESA, UKSA et
- ESA’s Clean Space Initiative is studying an active debris removal mission called deorbit, which would target an ESA owned derelict satellite in low orbit, capture it, then safely burn it up in the controlled atmospheric re-entry.
- RemoveDEBRIS (A mission by led by Surrey Space Centre, University of Surrey, UK): It is the first spacecraft to demonstrate active space debris-removal technologies – such as a Harpoon, a net and a drag sail.
- NASA’s NanoRacks-Remove Debris
- It demonstrates an approach to reducing risks presented by space debris or “space junk”.
- Japan Based Astroscale
- This is a Japan based venture which is working to prevent space-debris collisions. It will use magnet to ‘dock’ orbiting junk circling the earth.
- Astroscale Holding is preparing to rendezvous with, capture and dock a space satellite early next year (i.e. in 2020) to show how its technology can help clear orbiting Junk.
- Some Concerns raised against projects for cleaning space Debris
- Some scholars feel that militarization of space technologies meant to clean up space debris poses hidden challenges.
- We need to stop polluting: We need to ensure that the new satellites are not leading to the problem.
- Remove the garbage.
- Develop satellites which can withstand the impact with small debris.
- Multilateral Regulations of mega constellation: – Set up regulations and policies for mega constellations to ensure sustainable operations and to minimize risk of collision. This should also include new approaches for space traffic management as the capacity for ground-based platforms may not be sufficient to prevent collisions in case of increased number of satellites in future.
- Create code of conduct for both public and private sector, regarding the responsible behaviours in outer space.
- Technology to deal with risk assessment, automate collision avoidance:
- Work towards reducing the risk of cyber security by risk assessment and effective risk mitigation policies.
- Use advanced tech like ML, AI etc to automate collision avoidance. E.g., ESA is developing an automated collision avoidance system.
- Above recommendations should be coupled with responsible innovation which is focused on use of technology for the benefit of international peace and security and not for weaponization.
- Keeping outer space safe, secure and sustainable is a joint global responsibility. For peaceful solutions to last, the deterrence and diplomacy, as well as public awareness, will have to be proactively forged by the world’s space powers, leaders and thinkers.