Satellites, residues of collisions, pieces of space rockets – almost 170 million space objects that weigh more than 180 tonnes, are orbiting above our heads. Some of them fell, but most are just creating a space landfill. Space debris is not the public’s favorite topic, though it can impend over space vehicles and everything on Earth. However, “space collection” has grown a lot over the years and has become a severe problem. So what exactly can we find among dumping sites above our heads, how institutions and people tried to deal with it, what caused this problem, and how serious is it?

Space Debris Around the Earth
Space Debris Around the Earth
Image Courtesy: NASA

What is space debris?

We can divide space debris into two categories: natural micrometeoroids and artificial space debris. The first kind consists of small pieces of cometary and asteroidal material, and it’s only a fraction of the overall debris in our orbit. Following the definition, artificial space debris is anything humans create that revolves around the Earth and no longer performs the planned tasks.

The chemical classification method further divides artificial space debris into seven types, depending on the material they are made of. Despite classical “space objects” like old satellites or fragments of rockets, there are a lot of unusual objects. Those include tools and other things lost by the International Space Station, containers, and almost a tonne of uranium. Not everybody knows that nearly 99%of these objects are smaller than a centimeter, and only 0.017% are bigger than ten centimeters.

According to the European Space Agency, in September 2021, the total mass of all space object’s in the Earth’s orbit exceeds 9600 tonnes. Amongst that crowd, we can find thirty thousand space debris objects maintained and tracked by the Space Surveillance Networks.

History of space debris

The space-age started in 1957, and space debris became accumulating over a year later. The first debris ever created is Vanguard 1, the second American satellite orbiting Earth since 1958, mainly as a piece of junk. It was deactivated in 1964, but nobody took it down. In the following years, more and more objects became accumulating in the Earth’s orbit. Finally, the problem started being noticeable approximately in the 1980s, only twenty years after the beginning of the space age.

The Growth of Space Debris from 1957 to 2015
The Growth of Space Debris from 1957 to 2015
Image Courtesy: NASA

Looking for soultions

The history of dealing with debris also began in the ’60s, when the United States and the Soviet Union started testing ASATs (anti-satellite weapons). Unfortunately, ASATs didn’t solve the problem; they just made it more fragmented. By the 1990’s ASATs produced at least 1,190,000 small objects. The government and scientists often discuss the issue, but it is still far from a solution.

However, one of the exciting ways to deal with space debris is from the middle 1990s, when satellites started being miniaturized. Small satellites were cheaper, more refined, and created less mess than their precursors. That did not solve the problem of increasing landfills or debris that existed, but it could reduce its production. Unfortunately, that did not work, and the whole project finally failed in 2014.

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Diagantara- A promising start-up

However, there is a new exciting solution in the making. Digantara Research and Technologies is the first Indian private company dedicated to securing long-term spaceflight safety by developing space debris tracking and monitoring services. The highly motivated team of young scientists focuses on securing the Earth’s low orbit operations.

Unlike other passive tracking companies, Digantara focuses on actively tracking objects using lasers. Their technology is based on LiDAR, a remote sensing method, which uses pulsed lasers to measure distances. In November 2021, the company signed a contract with Orbital Astronautic Ltd. to fly a first in-situ orbital surveillance platform, SCOT payload onboard a satellite platform launching by the end of 2022.

The mission will focus on demonstrating the new tracking technology and construction of the satellite constellation. Once completed, the constellation is expected to provide high fidelity data at 10x higher resolution than the current industry standards, effectively elevating space governance. Whereas it won’t make space debris disappear, continuous monitoring is the first step towards finding a solution for the problem.

Digantara is an Indian start-up focused on solving the space debris issue.
Digantara is an Indian start-up focused on solving the space debris issue.

Dangers of space bebris

So, why exactly is space debris dangerous, you may ask. Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, space objects can get into the atmosphere and fall on our heads. Falling pieces are usually tiny and burn before they reach the ground. However, some dangerous situations involved falling debris.

For example, a part of a rocket propeller from a satellite launch fell and exploded in China four years ago. Even small pieces of debris can disrupt every kind of signal. Not to mention that debris pieces can destroy working satellites or collide in space. For example, in 1996, a French satellite CERSEI was broken by a piece of trash. This kind of situation is a vicious circle – broken objects become new, smaller pieces of debris, which doesn’t make them less dangerous.

“The point which is of importance is that even microscopic debris, because of the speed at which it travels, if it hits another body, or working satellite, would make it exploding, creating a cloud of debris. So even small debris is of importance,” says Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA’s Clean Space Office.

Over the years there's been more and more dangerous situations involving space junk
Over the years, there have been more and more dangerous situations involving space junk.
Image Courtesy: The Sun

Possible Solutions

The RemoveDebris Initiative

These days many space agencies try to solve the problem of debris. ESA’s engineers monitor the situation in orbit and warn European authorities. In April 2018, the RemoveDebris satellite was launched aboard SpaceX Drago. Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee presents itself as “… an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space.” 

It involves thirteen space agencies, including NASA, ESA, and ISRO. In addition, IADC includes four specialized working groups focused on measurement, protection, and debris mitigation.

Testing New Technologies

Since its launch, the project has gone from strength to strength. First, the team successfully experimented with capturing a cubed target using a specially designed net. Then, the entire platform used four technologies related to space debris- a net, a harpoon, vision-based navigation using cameras and LiDAR, and a de-orbit drag sail. Finally, at the beginning of 2020, Subrey performed a demonstration of a harpoon.

It fired on the 8th of February at a speed of 20 meters per second and successfully penetrated a target made of satellite panel material. With a dedicated team and innovative technology, RemoveDebris might play a considerable part in resolving the issue. However, there’s still a long way to go. As for September 2021, ESA estimates more than 630 “break-ups, explosions, collisions, or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation.”

New technologies developed by RemoveDebris include space debris catching net.
New technologies developed by RemoveDebris include a space debris catching net.
Image Courtesy: BBC

Space Debris In The Public’s Eye

The subject of space debris wasn’t the most popular one in public. The kind of mess we cannot even see created by space agencies may seem quite abstract, but that does not mean it will not come to haunt us in the future. Lately, it has managed to reach the mainstream, and maybe in time, it will become embedded in the public’s conscience, like the Earth pollution. This increasing attention may be caused by more and more incidents, including space debris, new possible solutions to the problem, or space companies’ policies.

In the last couple of years, start-ups like Digantara Research and Technology or collaborations like RemoveDebris developed numerous promising technologies. However, whereas the new technology is promising, there’s still a long way to go to clean up our orbit. It is important to remember the mess on the ground is not the only one people cause, and it is also not the only one we need to clear up.

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