As space debris grew 13 percent in 2009, engineers and scientists are facing a daunting challenge: how to mitigate the dangers to the $200 billion-a-year satellite and launch industries
Since the Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, more than 4,600 space missions have been conducted worldwide, leaving behind not only a legacy of space exploration but also a swirling mass of flotsam: defunct spacecraft, derelict launch vehicle orbital stages, intentional refuse, and the debris of more than 200 satellite explosions and collisions.
The orbital debris count is currently estimated at more than 300,000 objects dangerously whizzing around Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. In 2009, the debris count increased 13 percent, adding even more risk to the dicey $200 billion-a-year satellite and launch industries.
The most recent space collision, a February smashup of an Iridium communications satellite and an inactive Russian satellite, added another nearly 900 pieces to the debris and has raised questions about the safety of future space travel. Last year, NASA twice maneuvered robotic spacecraft to avoid collisions and, more recently, the International Space Station had to change orbits to avoid being smacked by 10-year-old debris from a Chinese satellite launch.
Writing in Forbes, James Dunstan and Berin Szoka are calling for the space-faring nations to launch a remediation program to reduce the amount of dangerous space debris. Governments alone, they argue, can’t afford to clean up space debris, estimated by some to cost in the trillions of dollars.
Under the plan, an Orbital Debris Removal and Recycling Fund would be created with satellite operators paying small fees. Private enterprise would be paid bounties from the fees for removing space debris.
“Apart from the obvious long-term benefits of preserving the usability of the space environment, satellite operators would benefit in the short term from reduced insurance rates and fewer mysterious satellite outages caused by collisions we cannot track,” the Forbes article states. “With the right funding mechanism, entrepreneurs can solve this problem. Governments must encourage innovation rather than crippling industry or creating yet another large government program to build and operate systems when the expertise for doing so clearly resides in the private sector.”
According to the article, two major hurdles—besides funding—need to be overcome: better tracking of space debris and better cooperation between nations, which often keep their satellite operations top secret. Then there are legal issues. Unlike maritime law, which encourages salvage operations to remove abandoned vessels as an aid to safe navigation, there are no such laws in space.
“By adapting maritime precedents, space law could make orbital debris removal feasible, once the right economic incentives are in place,” the authors wrote. “Entrepreneurs may even find ways to recycle and reuse on orbit the nearly 2,000 metric tons of space debris, which includes ultra-high grade aerospace aluminum and other precious metals.”
The Air Force told the lawmakers in April it is currently tracking 19,000 objects in space: 1,300 active payloads and 7,500 pieces of space junk. Lt. General Larry James, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, estimated that the number of active satellites will grow from 1,500 within the next 10 years and the overall number of tracked objects could grow to 100,000 with the use of better space sensors in the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
“However, there will still be potentially lethal objects in space too small to be tracked by the Space Surveillance Network,” he said.
The Air Force is hoping the Internet will help mitigate some of the crisis.
James said space situational awareness is more than understanding the space environment, tracking objects and conducting what the military calls “conjunction assessments” (i.e., the odds of a spacecraft hitting another object in space). James said space officials need to be able to discriminate between natural and man-made threats in addition to understanding the location, status and purpose of the objects.
“To get there we require more automated, net-centric capabilities to command and control space forces, and networked sensors and information systems that seamlessly share information to more effectively use our resources,” James said.
The Air Force Space Command’s Space-track.org Website already allows qualified commercial space interests and other countries to obtain unclassified data on catalogued space objects. To date, the site has hosted more than 37,000 users across 110 countries, with 75 percent of the users from the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and Australia.