Collisions in space are becoming more likely
US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — With hundreds of satellites launched every year, space collisions and the creation of fast-moving pieces of space debris are becoming more likely, threatening our ongoing human and technological presence in space.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently published its first report on the economic value of space debris. Using research from numerous sources, including data and analysis from the ESA Space Debris Office, he outlines the dangers that may arise in the future if we do not act and what can be done to secure our future in space.
Here we summarize the main findings of the report and explain how ESA helps solve the problem through its Space Security Program.
A growing problem
Commercial and institutional use of space is growing at a faster pace. The number of satellites in orbit will increase with the launch of “mega-constellations” for broadband satellite communications, some of which include thousands of satellites, while increasing the risk of collisions and an increase in the amount of space debris.
Only one collision or explosion in space creates thousands of small, rapidly moving small pieces of debris that can damage or destroy a working satellite. For example, in 2007, the deliberate destruction of the FengYun-1C satellite doubled the amount of garbage at an altitude of about 800 km, which led to an increase in the total number of garbage at that time by 30%.
Space debris is expensive and will become even more
Regarding the cost of space debris, the report says that: “Measures to protect against space debris and mitigate its consequences are already expensive for satellite operators, but the main risks and costs lie in the future, if the formation of debris goes out of control it will transfer certain orbits to the status unsuitable for human activity. ”
Protecting satellites from space debris is expensive, starting with constructive measures, the need for surveillance and tracking, moving existing satellites away from danger, and even replacing missions in general.
According to OECD data, for satellites in geostationary orbit, such expenses amount to approximately 5–10% of the total mission expenses, which may amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. In low Earth orbits, the relative costs per mission can be even higher than 5–10%.
However, the cost of inaction will be much higher. A sufficient amount of debris in orbit can ultimately lead to “Kessler syndrome”, in which a collision occurs, leading to an increasing number of self-generated collisions, and what the OECD describes as “an environmental tipping point that may render some orbits unusable” .
The socio-economic consequences of Kessler syndrome will be serious. Important space programs may be lost, such as weather forecasting, climate monitoring, earth sciences, and space communications. Failure to use certain orbits will have far-reaching and significant consequences. According to the report, this will include:
– Unique programs and functionality may be lost, such as the Internet, weather and communications services
– Loss of life, for example, increased risk for astronauts on the International Space Station
– Interrupted Earth exploration and climate research
– Increased crowding and pressure in other orbits
– Restricting economic growth and slowing investment in the sector
In particular, the report states that “certain geographic areas and social groups will be disproportionately affected, especially in rural areas with limited existing terrestrial infrastructure and great dependence on space infrastructure.”
We are not doing enough
According to the report, “there are comprehensive national and international mitigation measures, but their implementation is not enough to stabilize.”
Current principles to reduce clogging for operators operating satellites in low and geostationary orbits include, but are not limited to:
– Minimizing the probability of accidental explosions
– 25-year debit rule for low Earth orbit missions
– missions in geostationary orbit should be sent to a higher “cemetery orbit” at the end of their lives, not allowing the possibility of satellites functioning
– collisions should be avoided if possible, and the risk of accidents resulting from repeated accidents should be minimized.
As summarized in the latest ESA report on the state of space debris, most satellite operators in geostationary orbit comply with these guidelines, but less than 60% of those using low Earth orbit (and only 20% of those using orbits above 650 km) adhere to this. Several countries have also conducted anti-satellite tests over the years.
ESA’s Space Security Program – Europe‘s Response
ESA’s Space Debris Office is committed to protecting today’s flight and ensuring a sustainable future. Every day, ESOC’s mission monitoring teams in Darmstadt, Germany, monitor and evaluate the likelihood of potential collisions in orbit and help operators ensure the safety of their missions.
As even more satellites will be launched into orbit, modern “manual” methods to prevent collisions in space and the formation of debris will not be enough. Thus, as part of the agency’s space security program, ESA is developing “automatic collision avoidance” technologies that will make this process more efficient.
Assessing the risk and likelihood of collisions in space, this software will improve the decision-making process on the need for maneuver and can even send orders to satellites at risk to leave the road.
But what about trash that is already in orbit? For the first time in the world, ESA has commissioned a mission to remove debris from orbit.
The ClearSpace-1 mission will focus on the upper stage of the Vespa (secondary payload adapter) left in orbit after the second flight of the Vega ESA in 2013.
With a weight of 100 kg, the Vespa step is close in size to a small satellite, and its relatively simple shape and robust construction make it a suitable first target. This is the first step that proves that removing debris from orbit will probably create a commercial service that can also solve larger, more complex “cleansing,” ultimately including the removal of several objects.
Collision avoidance and debris removal are vital to reduce the amount of debris in space, but following the guidelines for debris mitigation outlined above has the greatest impact on our space environment.
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