Today, there is a renewed global focus to clean up the physical landscape of our planet, address pollution and mitigate climate change. But there is another polluted area that we should be paying closer attention to: space.
Since the 1950s, nations around the world have launched roughly 7,000 satellites into space. Over the years, these satellites and other orbital structures have been damaged by manmade debris, meteor showers and high levels of radiation in space. This damage, along with the normal lifecycles of structures sent into space, has resulted in over 7,000 tons of space junk orbiting the earth, creating an environmental disaster in an unlikely place.
There are efforts in the private and public sector to address the space junk problem but they are in their infancy. However, concern about the space junk problem is increasing around the world, and plans are being made on how to clean up the mess.
Garbage in Space: The Dangers of Space Debris
It’s not hard to imagine what kind of damage a large piece of debris can do to a satellite or space station: just think of how a small rock can put a gouge in a car’s windshield. But most people probably aren’t aware of just how serious the problems that small pieces of orbiting junk can cause for equipment in space. For example, the International Space Station (ISS) was hit by a micrometer size of debris and it created a half-inch ding in the window.[ii]
In the US, NASA and the Department of Defense operate a space surveillance network that monitors debris larger than two inches in length in order to protect the equipment and instruments currently in orbit. Monitoring space debris is quite a tall order: currently there are roughly 20,000 pieces of space junk over 10cm (about four inches) in size, around 500,000 pieces larger than one centimeter, and over 100 million pieces smaller than one centimeter. In space, even the smallest pieces of junk can cause severe damage to functioning satellites.
Since the US space program began, there have been no laws created to make space cleanup mandatory. On a global scale, cleaning up outer space is analogous to cleaning up the ocean: because so many countries have sent objects into space, and space doesn’t belong to any particular country, there’s no urgency for anyone to take responsibility for cleanup efforts. It’s also nearly impossible to determine where small pieces of space junk originated from. Complicating the matter is the fact that countries interested in cleaning up space junk can only capture those pieces of junk that originated from their territory; they must ask permission to collect debris created by other countries.
Like any other type of machinery, satellites don’t last forever and are very cost and labor-intensive to repair. As a result, many broken satellites, whether damaged or at the end of their lifecycle, are simply left in orbit once they cease functioning. They stay in space until they either fall out of orbit and back down to earth or are pushed farther into space (satellites may be intentionally pushed farther into orbit to an area called “the graveyard” where they will be out of the way of operational orbit). In either case, these satellites become very large pieces of space junk and in time could be further damaged by other pieces of debris, creating more orbital hazards.
Another factor that makes cleanup efforts so difficult is that functioning satellites and space stations currently in orbit constantly run the risk of colliding with each other, being struck by a random piece of debris, or getting caught in the middle of a meteor shower -- a constellation of risks that contribute to a never-ending cycle of more space junk.
Cleaning Up the Junk
In recent years, various ideas have been proposed to begin cleaning up space junk. So far most of these ideas have come from countries other than the US; some involve government, others are funded by private companies, but all have the same goal in mind. Proposals include using harpoons, nets, or sails to capture larger pieces of space junk (mostly old satellites, space stations and shuttles), while for smaller pieces, the use of lasers has been discussed.
One of the first projects to launch was the UK Surrey Space Centre mission to “Remove Debris”. This test mission to tackle space junk was funded by the European Commission and cost roughly $13 million Euros (just under $14 million US). The project will focus on protecting functioning equipment and instruments currently in orbit. The program will send a cube satellite up into space to deploy one of three instruments -- a harpoon, net or sail -- which will be used to capture larger pieces of space junk and guide them back down to earth safely.
New Ideas Proposed to Clean Up Space
As mentioned above, there have been some new ideas developed to help aid in space cleanup. Some of these programs are on their way to being launched in the near future.
- The European Space Agency’s DeOrbit program will launch nets, harpoons, sails and robotic arms to capture space junk in a polar orbit (an altitude of about 500-620 miles).
- The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency will use an electrodynamic tether to slow down speeds of satellites and other space debris, allowing debris to gradually fall to Earth where it will burn up in the atmosphere.
- Texas A&M University has proposed a “Sling-Sat Space Sweeper”; the idea is to capture junk objects and swing them towards earth like a catapult, while also using the momentum of the swinging action to push the sweeper on to the next object.
- Britain has proposed a “CubeSail” which would use a solar sail to capture debris and push it down towards earth.
- Raytheon BBN Technologies has proposed the Space Debris Elimination or SpaDE, which would use a balloon or high-altitude plane to create bursts of air that would push satellites into lower orbit.
- Star Technology and Research Inc. has proposed the solar-powered “ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator” which would use a network of nanosatellites connected by a piece of electrical conducting tape to push down satellites as it passes earth’s magnetic field.
(Source: E.Howell. “Space Junk Cleanup: 7 Wild Ways to Destroy Orbital Debris”. 3 Mar. 2014)
Unfortunately, these proposed solutions would be very expensive, and are currently only in the testing stage.
Opportunities to Look Out for
The problem of orbital space junk will not go away any time soon, and will likely continue to grow in years to come. Because of the severity of the problem, however, an increasing number of countries are considering how to clean up their space mess and are looking to the private sector for help. Over time vendors will begin to see opportunities pop up, most likely in the form of RFIs or RFPs, for many projects to help agencies gain a better understanding of the space junk problem and come up with innovative ways to help aid in cleanup efforts.
The bids that will be generated to help deal with the space junk problem can be expected to cover a large number of professional fields including design, production, technology, engineering, supplies, consultation and implementation. Other opportunities to be on the lookout for will be for the development and creation of equipment and instruments used to capture pieces of space debris. By collaborating with the private sector, more ideas can be evaluated and costs can be disbursed fairly. As the old saying goes, “Two heads are better than one!”
[i] N.davis. “Space Junk Cleanup Mission Prepares for Launch”. Thegaurdian.com 4 Jul. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017
[ii] J.Emspak. “How Can Humans Cleanup Our Space Junk”. Theverge.com. 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017
[iii] N. Panek. “Let’s Cleanup the Space Junk Orbiting Earth”. Ted Talk. Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017
[iv] N.p “2017 Space Launch Statistics”. Spaceflight101.com. 31 Dec. 2017. Web. 1 June 2018